A Conversation With Robert O’Brien

Friday, December 2, 2022

Chairman, American Global Strategies LLC; 27th U.S. National Security Advisor (2019–2021)


National Security Correspondent, Wall Street Journal; CFR Member

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien discusses technology, disinformation, and the intersection of technology policy and national security. 

SALAMA: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations session with former National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

My name is Vivian Salama. I’m a correspondent with the Wall Street Journal. And it’s definitely my privilege to speak with all of you today, as well as with Ambassador O’Brien, someone I covered very closely during the Trump White House years. Our audience consists today of Council members who are joining us both here in Washington and online. And we’re going to be looking forward to hearing from all of you during our question-and-answer sessions shortly.

So, Ambassador, it’s great to be with you. Thanks so much for talking to us.

O’BRIEN: Great to be here as well. And you covered me, covered me well, and very fairly. So thank you.

SALAMA: I appreciate that. Fair is what we look for. (Laughs.) So it’s not always the most desirable at times, but we all, you know, try to have an understanding.

O’BRIEN: You did a great job.

SALAMA: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

There’s so many things that we could dive into right away. Obviously, though, the invasion of Russia is something that is—continues to be on the minds of people here in Washington and around the world as we enter our tenth month, hard to believe, of this invasion. And it’s interesting the sense among the people I speak to here in Washington and across Europe and the world is probably that the most patient person in this conflict is Vladimir Putin. Are you concerned at all that complacency will set in, particularly here in Washington, either because we have next year a divided Congress or because of the fact that we have a general election season coming up, and that just interests will start to diverge?

O’BRIEN: Well, look, I think one thing that—and it’s a great question. I think there are two big concerns for Ukraine. One is complacency in the West, not just here in Washington but also in Paris and Berlin. I think we’re seeing some of that in Berlin already with the recent comments of Chancellor Scholz, which have seemed to be walking back some of the things he said early on in the conflict. But it’s also what’s going to happen this winter in Europe.

And Ukraine itself, which has been devastated by these attacks, war crimes, on civilian targets, no proportionality, an old-school attempt to Hitler using the V-2 rockets in an attempt to break to the will of the Ukrainian people. And they are going to suffer greatly this winter. And then some of the countries in Europe are going to be short on gas, and short on oil, and heating oil. And it’s going to be a tough winter for a place like Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria, Romania. So we’ll have to see how the combination of complacency and the pain that Putin inflicts this winter, how that affects the morale of the people both in Ukraine but also in Europe that are—especially the frontline states that are supporting Ukraine.

But one thing I think we can all agree on is the bravery, and the daring, and the boldness of the Ukrainian people has been an inspiration to all of us. I mean, to see people fighting for their freedom—not asking for U.S. troops, not asking for NATO troops, asking for us to be the arsenal of democracy, as we have been in the past, and going out to take on these Russian invaders and fight with, you know, the courage that they’ve shown is something that’s a—I think inspires all of us. And I think we need to be behind them 100 percent.

SALAMA: I did—I wrote up a Wall Street Journal poll a couple of weeks ago, before the midterm elections, that said that a growing number of Republicans especially believe that the administration has done too much for Ukraine this year. There was a lot of rhetoric. That rhetoric was being echoed by a lot of people on the Hill, Republicans in particular, particularly many who were running for office. Do you think that that rhetoric is going to simmer down, now that we are past the elections? And what do you tell folks in the Republican Party who are kind of erring toward this side of, you know, we’ve done too much; we need to focus on our own domestic interests?

O’BRIEN: Well, there’s always been an isolationist strain in America. And that’s something we’ve dealt with in every major war that we’ve ever fought. And it’s on the left and on the right. And so we’re seeing the same comments—no one asks the Democrats about that—but the Democrats and a number of people on the left that are isolationists and don’t want to support the Ukrainian people. And there are certainly some folks on the right. And you hear various motivations for it.

One, you hear about the—another endless war. And the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan and Ukraine is that the Ukrainians are taking the fight to the Russians themselves. They’re not asking for American troops. They’re not asking for American airmen to enforce a no-fly zone. They want the planes themselves so that they can enforce a no-fly zone over their own sovereign territory. So a big difference between some of the other wars that have not been popular on the left, or the right, or, frankly, you know, across a wide spectrum over America over the past several years.

Number two is, you know, this idea that Europe—we have to care more about Ukraine than Europe does, or that somehow the allies in Europe don’t have to bear the burden of the war in Ukraine the way America does. And I think if we get—and this is—you know, I’ve been very supportive of the Biden administration. They did a poor job in deterring Putin, but once Putin went into Ukraine the Biden administration has done a good job of rallying the allies to support Ukraine. And certainly, the expansion of NATO has been a big part of that. But the Biden administration needs to get out now.

It’s not just enough to rally the Germans, and the French, and the Brits have been good from the start on this, the Dutch, others. We’ve got to get them to put their money where their mouth is. And they have to support with arms, materiel, men, you know, all the resources that Ukrainians—rebuilding resources. They need to do for Ukraine what we’re doing for Ukraine. I think that will take away some of the concern that this is a U.S.-Ukraine operation as opposed to a Western operation supporting Ukraine.

SALAMA: You said that they did a bad job at deterrence. What could they have done differently? Because their argument at the time when everyone would say, why aren’t you sanctioning? If you have all this evidence in front of you that Putin will invade, or is planning to invade, why don’t you put sanctions? And they said, you can’t sanction someone preemptively. They haven’t done anything yet. So what would you have done differently, then?

O’BRIEN: Well, look, there are a whole number of things. And you can go back. It started with Afghanistan and the catastrophe of the withdrawal in Afghanistan, the manner in which it was executed sent a message to Putin. But then there were comments like—and, again, I think it was—it was President Biden misspeaking. I don’t think he meant to do it. But when he talked about a minor incursion could be tolerated, but not a—you know, a full-blown invasion. There was constant talk when we were—Larry Kudlow and I, for example, were urging sanctions on the Russian Federation Central Bank, or at least the threat of sanctions on the Russian Federation Central Bank, if they did invade. And the response from the administration was, well, we don’t want to provoke Putin.

Putin had been provoked in 2014. I mean, he’d taken, you know, Donbas and, you know, a large portion of Donbas and Crimea at that time. So this idea that if we don’t provoke a dictator, they’ll somehow go easier or they’ll be amenable to working with us—

SALAMA: But they declassified intelligence in a pretty extraordinary way, and rallied allies in advance to prepare sanctions packages. Do you believe that that’s commendable at least?

O’BRIEN: Well, it was commendable, but it was late. And it was—the declassification of the intelligence came very late. It was useful. By the way, I supported that. And it was a great use for our intelligence to set the table and expose the false-flag operations, and to try to get the Ukrainians to understand what was happening. I mean, keep in mind that it’s not just a Biden administration failure. It was a failure in Ukraine, because Zelensky and his colleague did not believe up until a day or two before the invasion that this was actually going to happen. So I think the use of the intelligence was important. But again, it was late in the process. What we needed to do earlier in the process was let the Russians know that the sanctions would be devastating.

And the one area where we have failed—and the West has failed, not just the U.S.—is the sanctions are still half-measures. I mean, the Russian ruble is still trading pretty high. Russia is selling oil and gas. When we sanction the Russian Federation Central Bank, we exempted oil and gas sales. We exempted farm sales. We exempted extraction, you know, industries. But what do the Russians sell? I mean, when’s the last time anyone here went on Amazon and said: I got to get that latest thing from Russia, that new thing from Russia? It never happened, because there is nothing new from Russia. Russia sells oil and gas. And if you don’t sanction oil and gas, you’re not sanctioning Russia.

And so one of the concerns I have is the audience for this conflict—outside of Kyiv, the biggest audience for this conflict is an audience of one. It’s Chairman Xi Jinping in Beijing. He wants to do the same thing. He’s used the same justifications for going into Taiwan that Putin is using to go into Ukraine, these historical facts and, you know, historical ties, among other things. He’s watching this. And there was just recently a report from a think tank in China that said: Vladimir Putin personally has made money off this war, and Russia has made money off the war, because of the increase in price of oil. So the increase in price of oil has more than offset all the other sanctions. So if we really want to get serious about this, we’ve got to cut off Russian oil and gas sales not just to use, but with threats of secondary sanctions, to other countries.

SALAMA: I want to get to—get back to the China—your China point in a second, but just one last really quick one on Russia. The administration has perhaps used—exerted some pause with regard to even longer—providing even longer-range missiles, missile systems, to Ukraine, particularly the ATACMS. Even the decision to provide them with HIMARS was one that, you know, caused a lot of consternation here in Washington. Do you think that that concern that is held here by some in Washington about providing these, the problems that it could potentially cause, is legitimate? Or do you want to see even longer-range systems in the hands of the Ukrainian forces?

O’BRIEN: Look, in my view, I think there’s been some prudence in the way the administration has handled it. Not with every weapon system, but certainly with the ATACMS, with some of the longer-range missiles that could go into Russia. I mean, we’re dealing with a nuclear power in Russia that has 1,250 strategic nuclear weapons pointed at us. They’ve got about 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. It’s something we think about every day in my old position, something the president of the United—Jake’s thinking about that every day. The president of the United States is thinking about that every day.

I mean, even assuming—as bad as the Russian kit is, and as in disrepair as everything is, even a 50 percent failure rate, we’ve got 600 nukes coming to the U.S. if there’s a conflict that escalates to that level, which heaven forbid it ever does. So we do have to be careful, and we have to exercise prudence. The problem is, is that we can’t let the Russians set the red line. So for example, we should have gotten on the MiGs. I mean, early on the Poles wanted to transfer the MiGs to Ukraine.

Those MiGs—I mean, I used to joke and say if Gina Haspel had still been in office, Gina would have gotten the MiGs sold through a Russian arms dealer, Putin would have gotten his 10 percent of the MiG sale. He would have been happy. The Ukrainians would have got the MiGs. They would have been happy. And it would have all been done before anyone knew it had happened. They’d be flying in Ukrainian liberty, and it would have been done. But we set this red line on the MiGs.

The same thing with the HIMARS. Ultimately, the HIMARS got there. I think we’re going to get planes to Ukrainians. They’ve got very capable pilots. They can fly their own planes. But on some of the longer-range platforms we do have to exercise some prudence. And I don’t disagree with Jake and Tony and the president on how they’re—and Lloyd Austin—on how they’re dealing with those—some of the systems.

SALAMA: Mmm hmm. We could probably spend the whole hour talking about this alone, but I do want to move onto a few more topics. You’ve just talked about Xi Jinping watching what’s been happening in Ukraine, you know, vis-à-vis his own interest in Taiwan. But the administration says that so far they do not see evidence that China is moving in on Taiwan, at least not to a point where an attack or an invasion of some kind is imminent. And so where do you kind of classify—you watch Taiwan very closely—where do you classify the threat level? And why do you think—what do you think can be done in order to send that message to Xi Jinping and China in general that any moves would be unwise?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question. And it’s the most important question that we’re looking at internationally right now. I mean, this is how World War III starts, is in the Taiwan Straits. Phil Davidson, our former COCOM—our combatant commander in the Indo-Pacific, testified in 2021 that he thought that it was a seven-year window for an invasion, or an attempted forced reunification of Taiwan with China. I think that that window has closed. And I think Phil agrees. And I think everyone agrees that that window has closed. It can anywhere from two to four years. President Xi had to get there—Chairman Xi, as I like to call him—had to get through the Party Congress. He got through that.

He’s facing some trouble of his own, which is good for us. You know, I think we all stand behind the Chinese people and their bravery and courageous attempts to stop the lockdowns, which are just horrific, in China. And I think that protest has the potential to go broader. And it’s indigenous. It’s not something that’s spurred from the outside, no matter what the CCP says. So he’s got some—he’s got some domestic problems now. That could either have the effect of slowing it down, or it could have the effect of speeding up any operation against Taiwan, because it could divert—I kind of think of the Argentinian junta with the Falklands and Islas Malvinas, and their terminology of diverting attention from the poor economic situation in Argentina by stirring up an international conflict. You could see that happening in Taiwan.

So we’ve got to be very careful. Now, whether it’s a full-scale Normandy invasion of Taiwan, the Chinese are probably still a little bit behind on that front, probably not ready to go tomorrow, but could be ready to go in two or three years. But you could also see them taking outer islands, you could see a blockade, you could see a lot of cyberattacks, you could see attempts—I mean, certainly China has infiltrated Taiwan to an extent, and could use attacks within Taiwan to disrupt the government. So there are a number of things that Xi could do to attempt to coerce a reunification short of an amphibious attack.

SALAMA: Do you—what do you make of the administration’s public rhetoric about Taiwan? They have been at times accused of mixed messaging, because on the one hand they still do reiterate a one-China policy, but on the other hand President Biden has repeatedly said that if China attacks Taiwan, the U.S. will react. And so where’s the middle ground there? You know, what kind of a message does that send? I mean, in some ways that kind of mixed messaging was one of the things that President Trump was criticized for and praised for, because some countries around the world would look at it and not know what he was thinking or what he wanted to do. And so it might have created some pause. Maybe it’s doing the same, or do you think it’s not?

O’BRIEN: Well, see, you’re a little young for this, Vivian, but if you look at—

SALAMA: Yes. Whatever it is, I’m definitely too young.

O’BRIEN: Who remember—during the Reagan administration, conservatives used to say: Let Reagan be Reagan. And Joe Biden has now—President Biden has now said four times that the U.S. will come to the defense of Taiwan. He’s been walked back by his staff on all four occasions. And so I think there are a lot of conservatives and a lot of friends of Taiwan who are saying: Let Biden be Biden. And I never thought I’d say that but, look, I think the president knows what he’s doing. I think part of it is a reaction to what happened in Ukraine. I think the Biden administration is self-aware enough and, you know, there’s a lot of smart people, with Secretary Blinken and Jake and others, that they understand that deterrence failed in Ukraine. And so I think this is an attempt to reassert deterrence when it comes to Taiwan. And I think the president’s statements fall into that category.

And I think in some ways people say it’s moving away from strategic ambiguity. I think what he’s trying to do—I assume what the president’s trying to do is recreate some strategic ambiguity by making those statements, to make Chairman Xi think twice about a course of action against Taiwan. You know, of course, the staff walking things back. But that’s also kind of interesting. I think if we had tried to walk back President Trump four times, I would have been packing my bags and out on west exec with a box of materials. That wouldn’t have gone over very well in our administration. But I do think he—I think what the president’s trying to do, and I think his gut instinct is right, is to restore some deterrence and some ambiguity with Xi after what he watched in Afghanistan, and then certainly with the invasion of Ukraine. I think the attempt is to show that the U.S. will—you know, there’s risk to him.

SALAMA: Amazingly, a lot of China policy is pretty bipartisan. And one of the things that the previous and current administration agree on is that there has to be some healthy balance of competition and cooperation with China. That was the case with Russia as well, although that seems to have gone out the window, obviously, in the last ten months. One of the interesting areas in particular is our tech—is our tech policies toward China, and ongoing debates about antitrust laws, U.S. companies. You’ve been pretty outspoken, saying that some of those laws actually play into the hands of China. And so if you could talk a little bit about that briefly, and how that kind of plays into this whole balance. How do you strike that balance between cooperation and competition? And how do you make it work for the U.S., ultimately?

O’BRIEN: That’s a very good question. And you’ll hear from my answer that I’m going to be running for president or anything of that nature, because I’m going to compliment the Biden administration. I think the CHIPS Act, which I was behind on a bipartisan basis, and I believe Secretary Pompeo was behind it as well—a lot of what we can do with China happens here in America, Vivian. And we got to—we got to take care of our own house. And we spent too many years shipping our industrial capacity and our industrial base overseas to China and other places, creating fragile supply chains, and putting us at risk. And we really saw that with COVID.

So I think on the hardware side, with the CHIPS Act, I think that’s a very important tool that will help us—look, I don’t like industrial policy. I don’t like government subsidies, as a Republican. But we’ve got to help these companies—we’ve got to give some incentives for these companies to come back. And now with the big Intel plant that you’re seeing in Ohio, Global Foundries is doing a lot here, we’re seeing some of the foreign companies like TSMC talk about building operating facilities and foundries in places like Arizona. So I think that’s important.

I think there’s another debate that’s taking place right now, and that’s a bipartisan amendment from Senator Schumer and Senator Cornyn—leader Schumer and Senator Cornyn—on Section 89 of the NDAA. Which basically says, you know, we banned ZTE and Huawei, and these pernicious Chinese state-owned enterprise from doing telecom for the U.S. government. But we need to make sure that Chinese chips, even the commodities chips not the advanced chips that are—that the CHIPS Act is aimed at, but the commodities chips stay out of systems, our platforms.

And Mark Montgomery, an admiral that a lot of you know, the retired admiral, talked about, that there’s no question that the Chinese can put malware into these chips. And, you know, the last thing we want is a conflict. And every F-18 has a lot of—or F-18, F-35, F-22—has a lot of advanced chips. But there are a lot of commodity chips on those platforms as well. The last thing you want is Chinese malware going off in our platforms. And those are just examples. And it’s every military platform, every car that everyone drives here.

And then the second thing is by encouraging the government to buy U.S.-made chips or trusted provider chips made from governments and our friends, that helps, you know, the industry develop here and moves it away from China. So kind of on the industrial policy part of it, again, I hate that word, I don’t like subsidies. I don’t like, you know, regulations on where we have to—you know, the U.S. has to buy things. But I think it makes sense in this case.

On big tech, going to the—I’ll quickly wrap up here on that antitrust legislation and the apps legislation, there are a lot of people upset with big tech. The left is upset because of disinformation and privacy concerns. The right feels that big tech has become, you know, a regime media and is censoring and deplatforming conservatives. So everyone’s angry at big tech. But what we have to understand is the future is going to be determined by who gets to—you know, who makes the fastest and furthest advances in AI, in quantum, in robotics, in space, in 5G, 6G, 7G.

You know, and if we lose our big tech companies, they’re the ones who are driving Americans innovation. It’s not the U.S. government. It’s not DARPA. Even when we send money to DARPA, they just go and turn to U.S. companies and put that money out. If we lose our tech advantage with this race against China, we’re in real trouble. So we need to think carefully about if there are concerns that folks have about big tech, we need to have a very narrow regulation, very narrow legislation aimed at those concerns, and not try to destroy big tech or break big tech up, because we’re going to end up with big tech being based in China and Beijing.

Right now, ten of the top twenty tech companies in the world are in Beijing, of the biggest ones, and ten are here. We can’t have—and China would love to have all twenty in Beijing. So if we think we’re going to get a better deal—if you’re a conservative and you think you’re going to get less censorship from Beijing, you’re wrong. If you’re a liberal and you think you’re going to get better data policies from Beijing, you’re wrong. We need to keep, you know, a vibrant tech industry here that helps us stay ahead of the Chinese on robotics and AI and all these important areas, quantum computing. But that also gives us a chance to regulate with a scalpel rather than a hammer. And the current legislation is like a sledgehammer aimed at taking out frustration on big tech. And that’s not—that’s not smart.

SALAMA: This is an area of very robust debate, but I have about fifteen more topics I want to ask you about in the next eight minutes.

O’BRIEN: OK, I’ll be faster.

SALAMA: So I’m going to move on.

O’BRIEN: This is the problem with having a lawyer as your guest, yeah, so.

SALAMA: Exactly. (Laughs.) So I do want to ask you about Iran, and the current status of efforts to revive the JCPOA, which appear on life support right now. The administration acknowledges that, you know, against the backdrop of protests in the country. And I’m just curious because, you know, in your view, are we at a point of no return? And there’s—we could sit here and probably debate what could have caused it. You know, the withdrawal from the JCPOA fast tracked a lot of that enrichment. A lot of people in the previous administration say that Iran was cheating on the agreement anyway. And so where do you think—where, in your view, can we go from here, when we are at 60 percent enrichment, including at some very strategically located facilities in Iran?

O’BRIEN: Well, first of all, look, I said this back at the time the JCPOA was signed. It was the worst deal since Munich. We gave the Iranians $150 billion in sanction relief. We gave them a bunch of cash for hostages. They turned over a few hostages. They refilled the—you know, the pond, so to speak, by taking additional hostages because they thought they could sell them for 300 million (dollars) a person. So we created a market for hostage-taking. The Iranians took the $150 billion—and, I remember at the time President Obama had a very eloquent inauguration speech when he said: We’ll reach out our hand if you’ll unclench your fist. Well, we reached out our hand with 150 billion (dollars) in it, and they took the 150 billion (dollars) and spent it on Kata’ib Hezbollah and on the Houthis and on Hamas and on the Assad regime and created death and mayhem all over the Middle East.

The Iranian middle class—the whole idea with the JCPOA was that it was kind of the same naïve idea we had about China. Well, if we get richer, and we trade with them, and we give them concessions, they’ll become rich, they’ll become more like us, they’ll become more democratic. The Iranian regime became more autocratic, exported more terrorism, created more mayhem in the world, killed more Americans and others. So bad idea from the start.

And now what we’re facing, it’s pretty amazing. We’ve got the Iranians selling and giving drones to the Russians, potentially ballistic missiles to the Russians to attack Ukraine. And we’re using the Russians as an intermediary to negotiate on our behalf with the Iranians on the JCPOA. Look, I think that other than Rob Malley there’s no one in the administration that wants this deal, but there’s a fascination with the JCPOA with some of the former Obama administration folks who are now in the Biden administration, who I think want to restore a victory to President Obama.

We’re way past that. The sunset clauses in the JCPOA kick in the next year or two. Iran would become a recognized nuclear power. And so I—look, I think Jake, and I think the president, and General Milley, and probably Secretary Austin, you know, are against it. I mean, this is just, you know, what you hear around town. I hope it’s on life support, but now they just need to pull the plug on it. And we can talk about, you know, how do you deter Iran going forward? But the JCPOA is a disaster and needs to be put out of its misery.

SALAMA: Maybe there are some that don’t want this deal, but they want a deal. The administration admits that the JCPOA was imperfect, but they believe that some regulation on Iran, some oversight on its program, was better than just letting it go. And the IAEA and other closer observers have said that the fast tracking really began after we withdrew from the agreement. And so, you know, do you—how do you justify sort of nothing and letting Iran do whatever it’s going to do versus having something, whether it be a highly problematic agreement that at least has some checks over its program?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, so I think the Iranians—the Israelis, when they did that daring raid on the Iran nuclear archives, so that there was no check on—the JCPOA wasn’t a check on their program. But we do need a—we should have a deal with Iran. I’m not—and in fact, we tried to get a deal with Iran in the Trump administration. And there should be deal. The question—and what should that deal include? It should mean that—there’s a ballistic missile program that holds Israel at risk, but all of our allies in Europe and eventually will hold us at risk, should be curtailed and stopped. The nuclear program should be stopped. And support of terrorism in the region should be stopped. And the attempts to assassinate former government officials and dissidents in America and Europe should stop.

So those are kind of threshold issues that should be part of a deal. And if Iran wanted to become a normal country, and frankly I’d add to that now stop supplying the Russians with drones and ballistic missiles to kill innocent Ukrainians. So if Iran wanted to become a normal country, there’s a deal to be had. But short of that, if the Iranians won’t come to the table—and, look, they won’t even come to the table for the terrible, old JCPOA. I mean, they’re, you know, pushing us away. We need to put pressure on Iran in a way that will encourage them to come to the table. And how do you do that is a—you know, you really have to have a maximum pressure campaign.

Ours was starting to show promise, but we need to rally the allies the way we have rallied the allies in support of Ukraine. We need to do the same thing with respect to Iran.

SALAMA: I’m going to try to squeeze in two more questions. One big picture and one real quick one before we turn it over to the audience. On the issue of arms control, and we’re just talking about Iran right now, but you’re talking Iran, North Korea has fired a record number of missiles this year—sixty, if we’re counting. We have Vladimir Putin threatening nuclear—to use nuclear weapons in the event of attacks—as he says, threats to his country. Although the administration says they haven’t seen him moving toward that. But threats are still threats. And those are just a few examples. There are sanctions—heavy sanctions—on those three countries alone, if we just take them, for example. Are sanctions not working? Are they not working as a deterrent to stop these activities with proliferation?

O’BRIEN: Yeah. Look, and the other thing that you have to add, Vivian, is that the new Pentagon report says the Chinese are on track for 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons will be aimed at us. You combine with those with the Russians, even if we kept New START in place, we’re limited then. So we’ve got—we’re limited at our 1,250, the Russians have their 1,250, and you add 1,500 strategic weapons from the Chinese. Even if you throw in the small arsenals from France and the U.K., we’re totally now outnumbered, potentially two to one, by our adversaries. So the Chinese are very good at using these nuclear arms treaties, like New START, to their benefit, while keeping us from expanding our nuclear capability. So nuclear proliferation, it’s a problem. And every one of the ones you mentioned is a different problem set, from North Korea, to Iran, and Russia. They’re all different issues.

You know, sanctions can be effective, but they’re a blunt instrument. And we’ve got to be careful of them, because at some point—and this was a concern that Secretary Mnuchin had and I always had, the reserve status of the dollar is almost as important as our nuclear capability, as far as a tool of national power. And at some point if you sanction everybody at the same time, the value of the sanctions diminished and you could end up in a situation where some countries, you know, aren’t using the dollar, or we lose that reserve status, or the preeminence of the dollar. So, you know, what I’d like to do—and, of course, the world’s much more messier than this, as you point out. It would be nice if you could use a sanctions seriatim to deal with one problem at a time, rather than trying to use them all at the same time.

But the other problem with sanctions is our sanctions—oftentimes we use sanctions, but we put half-measure sanctions on, like we’ve done with the Russians in Ukraine. So if we’re going to use sanctions, my position is—and a country’s bad enough to merit the heavy sanctions—let’s go full Rhodesia, full South Africa, and having crippling sanctions, deal with the problem, instead of half-measure sanctions that don’t really—that aren’t going to remove a government, aren’t going to stop a program, and are only going to irritate them and hurt the population. So when we use sanctions, we got to use them to the full extent possible, and to achieve the result that we’re looking for. And if we’re not going to do that then, you know, maybe it’s not worth sanctioning the country.

SALAMA: I hope someone asks you a follow up to that, to what a half-measure sanction is versus a full measure. But I do want to get one more question in, because it’s in the news. You’ve been asked publicly about the FBI search on the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence, resort. I’m not going to ask you about that. I know that you’re not—you’re not interested in talking about it and have said publicly that you don’t really know what the documents contain. But I do want to ask you from a national security perspective, and especially as someone who was the national security adviser, about the statutes with regard to declassification. There’s a lot of talk about the need to update those statutes, that perhaps they either give—there’s too much ambiguity involved in them or that maybe the president has too much discretion with regard to declassifying without some sort of formalized process behind it. So I’m curious about whether you think they should be revisited, the former president aside, just in general for national security purposes.

O’BRIEN: Yeah. So it’s a relatively complex issue, but it’s also a separation of powers issue. So on the—you know, on the complexity of it, there’s a patchwork of legislation dealing with declassification. And it would certainly apply to an official like me. So there were some things where I was the original classification authority, and I could—I was told by the lawyers—I had the ability to declassify documents. And when we did that, we ran a process. And we ran a process within the NSC, and we had the lawyers sign off on it. It’s a different situation when you’re dealing with the president, because the president’s authority derives from Article Two of the Constitution. And so any attempt to put—and that’s usually where the president, when he’s conducting foreign affairs and national security, operates at the broadest of his powers.

And so any attempt by Congress to legislate how a future president or president would deal with either records or with national security issues, and classification is one of them, is always fraught with the separation of powers question, that could end up in front of the Supreme Court. So, again, I think the White House counsel, whether it’s the current White House and the current White House counsel or a future White House counsel, a past White House counsel, is always going to be jealous of guarding executive power and executive privilege, you know, under the Constitution. And this falls into one of those areas where I think it’s a difficult situation to regulate.

But, you know, having said that, you know, we probably over-classify, we probably under-classify. I mean, the whole classification process—and, look, I look around at all the people here that are involved and have been involved at the highest levels in this issue. You know, it’s a complex situation. And some more clarity would probably be useful. And, you know, probably making more information available to the American people where we can, without compromising national security, would be—would be useful.

SALAMA: Clarity would be useful.

I want to invite members to join our conversation. A reminder that this conversation is on the record. So we’ll first take a question here in Washington.

Q: Jane Harman, former member, Freedom House. Hello, Robert.

O’BRIEN: Hi, Congresswoman. How are you?

Q: A comment and a question. My comment is about JCPOA, which was perfect. But I would say, as a transactional deal, it had some impact. As a transformational deal, it had no impact. And I think we should have been better off if the Trump administration had kept it and negotiated to make it longer and stronger. That’s my comment. My question is—which you’re welcome to respond to.

My question is about Article Five of NATO, which hasn’t been mentioned. The last time it was invoked by NATO was on 9/11. And the U.S. didn’t even request it, but it was invoked. The question is, whether if some massive cyberattack occurs in Europe—and the Ukrainians have prevented that so far, and so have we and our tech companies. If some massive cyberattack happens in Europe to NATO members and/or the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility melts down and radiation comes into Europe, should that invoke Article Five? And if it’s invoked, what should our response be?

O’BRIEN: So this is why I never wanted to appear in front of you on your committee. (Laughter.) I know you’d ask those questions. They’re not easy.

So on the cyber—I think the cyber and the nuclear question are both different. But on the cyber issue, that’s something we looked very close to in our interagency process on. And I know the current administration is doing the same thing. And that is, you know, how do we integrate ideas of deterrence and response and—into the cyber world, which is something—the cyber world’s not new, but this idea of these cyberattacks are, and the potential impact that it could have on us, you know, are somewhat novel. I remember it was during the transition. I was over in Europe working on some transition issues with other national security advisers. And I had to come home because of the Solar Winds attack.

Now, the good news is on Solar Winds, is it didn’t go kinetic. In other words, with the—you know, we got to think about cyberattacks—some cyberattacks might be espionage, where they get into our systems, they figure out what’s in there, they take data out. But, you know, it’s—espionage is spying, it’s reconnaissance. And that happens across all domains, not just in cyber. But once—if there’s malware there and cyber is used to take down an electric grid, and a hospital loses power, and people die in a hospital, or, you know, elevators come crashing down in a building, or, you know, airplanes are diverted off course or crash, and now you’ve got a kinetic cyber—a kinetic result from a cyberattack.

That seems to me, Jane, to put it more in the category of a missile attack, or a rocket attack, or an invasion, that would trigger Article Five. So I think we need to look at—you know, what is a cyber intrusion? If it’s espionage, if it’s surveillance and that sort of thing—you know, I’m not saying we would ever do that ourselves—(laughter)—but that’s one thing. But if there’s a cyberattack that leads to death or destruction of property, the way a bomb would, or the way that, you know, a nuclear or a radiological, a biological attack would, then I think we need to—you know, that’s the sort of thing that would come into the realm of triggering an Article Five response.

You know, as far as the nuclear facility, that’s a little bit of a different question but it’s the same genre. And that is if this facility melts down in Ukraine and radiation gets into Europe, what’s the response there? And how do you determine liability? Because I’m sure, you know, the Russians, of course, will claim that it wasn’t their fault, that they didn’t do it. It was Ukraine’s fault and—

SALAMA: And they’re good at covering their tracks.

O’BRIEN: They’re very good at it, and they’re masters at false flag. I mean, they’ve been doing false flag since, you know, the early Bolshevik days. And so, you know, how would we respond to a meltdown of the reactor is something we’d have to see. And, you know, there are some days I wake up and I’m glad that it’s Jake Sullivan sitting the White House and not me and having to think about and worry about these decisions. But that’s probably a tougher, you know, one to figure out how to deal with. We’d have to investigate the facts of it. I mean, certainly we would respond to that by giving all aid and comfort to our Ukrainian friends and our friends in Europe and doing everything we could to mitigate the damage. And then we’d have to think about what could be done to punish Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation for allowing that event to occur.

SALAMA: The going—the going defense is we go conventional. I mean, this is sort of what’s being said in Washington, is an attack like that would warrant probably more of a conventional response, because you don’t want nukes against nukes.

O’BRIEN: No. And look, absolutely. Look, we do have—you know, we’ve got some capabilities of our own on the cyber front that could be—you know, I’m told. And I read about it in the Wall Street Journal. And I wrote in your paper an opinion piece last year about how we might respond to even a nuclear attack in Ukraine, a Russian tactical nuke in Ukraine that didn’t impact Western Europe, and what conventional steps we might take in response to Russian forces that were—that were, at that point, in our rear, whether it’s Syria, or the North Atlantic, and that sort of thing.

So again, we’d have to take a look at the specifics of what happened, and then form an attack. But, you know, keeping in mind, going back to my earlier comment, you know, the most terrifying briefing you get as a national security adviser is, you know, the first or second day on the job, when you get read in on the football and nuclear plans, and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. And we need to avoid that situation at all costs, and the Russians at all costs, because we don’t want to give our freedom up and just surrender to nuclear blackmail. But we need to take every step we can to avoid an escalation to a nuclear confrontation.

SALAMA: I’m going to take another one. Yes, ma’am.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. I’m a CNBC contributor.

There are talks of a reverse CFIUS process, controlling outbound investment to China in certain areas. Good idea? Bad idea?

O’BRIEN: Great idea. I mean, the idea that we’re funding the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force and Army, and the People’s Liberation Army, is absurd. I mean, the fact that there are billions of U.S. dollars going into Chinese companies that are part of the Chinese military industrial complex is outrageous. And it shouldn’t just be on sensitive areas in a reverse CFIUS process. And we really need to think about why is the U.S. sending billions of dollars of our retiree money into Chinese enterprises that are, number one, risky, because they’re not audited? They don’t—they’re not subject to the same controls as investments in U.S. public companies.

So one of the things that Larry Kudlow and I did, and with the president’s direction, at the end of the administration is we stopped the—and Gene Scalia—we stopped the Thrift Savings Plan, the retirement plan for the U.S. military and a lot of U.S. government employees, from investing in China, from investing in the fund—I think it was a BlackRock fund, that was going to invest billions of retiree dollars in China. Because we thought it was absurd that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were investing in shipyards that built both—through their retirement savings—that built both commercial ships but also naval ships for the Chinese military. We were basically funding the building of new submarines, and ships, and planes that were going to kill the people who were funding it, potentially, in a conflict.

And so we really need to look at how we invest in China. We’ve been throwing China a lifeline. There’s no reason we should be investing in China the way we are. We can sell to China. I’m not for a full decoupling. But the idea that we should be taking billions of dollars out of our economy and investing it in the Chinese economy, especially in the dual use industries, you know, I don’t understand the justification for it. I think it’s absurd. But Wall Street loves it.

SALAMA: Thank you. Yes, sir.

Q: Hi. Jonathan Chanis, New Tide Asset Management.

I’m interested in your call for secondary sanctions against Russian oil exports. What do you think it would do to oil prices? And what do you think the Chinese and Indian reactions would be?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I’m not so concerned about the Chinese reaction. But they might react, but what are they going to do? They’re going to either—their companies will be sanctioned, which we should probably do anyway to put pressure on them, or they’ll—you know, or they’ll abide by them. The Indians are a tougher choice because they’re a partner. They’re not officially an ally, but they’re a partner of us. They’re a partner in the Quad. They’re very important for going forward to be a check on China in the Indo-Pacific region. And so we’d have to figure out a way to help the Indians.

And one of the ways we could help the Indians, and our other allies, and friends, and partners, is drilling more here and helping our allies and partners drill more, and refining it in a much safer, much more—much cleaner fashion, drill it in a much cleaner fashion than the Iranians, or the Venezuelans, or the Russians are doing, and have clean U.S. energy, and support our allies and partners. It takes time. You know, so there’s a lag, right? Even if all the permits were approved today—and, you know, there’s only so much Haliburton and Schlumberger, and support for folks who want to drill. So there is a lag time. I get that. And to finish this Keystone Pipeline would probably take another year. But we need to start moving in that direction and send a message to our adversaries that we’re not going to be dependent on their oil, and to our partners that we’re going to be a reliable partner on energy.

SALAMA: I’m glad that you mentioned Venezuela, because I do want to ask you about the recent news, which my colleagues and I happened to break in the Wall Street Journal, I’ll just plug our article, about the waiver for Chevron to go and pump oil, on the condition that Venezuela come back to the table and talk. The administration defends it, although they’ve gotten a lot of criticism from Republicans, especially because they say that, A, it was absolutely necessary to ease the humanitarian crisis and, B, we are also in a global energy crisis. And if there was a time, now is the time. And so I’m curious, you know, the Trump administration was very, very hawkish on Venezuela in particular. But given the global circumstances and the massive humanitarian crisis, do you feel that this approach is one that at least should be, if for no other reason because nothing—we weren’t making progress with Venezuela otherwise?

O’BRIEN: Well, one of the things we did is we had a terrific coalition of American—and when I say that, North American, South American, Central American countries—supporting Juan Guaido and supporting the people of Venezuela. This was always about the people of Venezuela, about democracy in Venezuela, about the rule of law in Venezuela. Maduro’s a murderous thug. So was Chavez. And so I think our policy was absolutely right when it came to Venezuela, and pointed out the human rights violations that were taking place there.

Now, the question is we’re also in a great-power competition with China. And China’s trying to make inroads in Venezuela. And has made many inroads in Venezuela. And this goes back—I don’t know what the administration’s thinking is. To put the best case on it would be something along Jeane Kirkpatrick’s old theory of democracies and dictatorships and authoritarian governments versus communist governments. Is there a way with Maduro—is there some intel which, you know, I no longer have access to that sort of thing—but is there some intel showing that Maduro might be willing to move away from the Chinese, that he might be willing to be a partner with the U.S.? That his need for oil revenue would make him more reliable? Would there be a way to improve human rights in Venezuela by having this opening? And ultimately, could we get back on a democratic track?

And if the Venezuelans want to—in a free and fair election—want to elect, you know, someone like a Lula or a Maduro, you know, that’s fine. But we can’t have—you know, what it’s turned into in Venezuela is a one man, one vote, one time situation. But if there’s a—you know, a movement for Maduro to go back to a democratic process, to give Juan Guaido and the Venezuelan people a chance to participate in their government, and we can pull the Venezuelans away from the Chinese, there might be some utility in that sort of an approach. And, again, that’s putting the best—that’s my best case, you know, for the administration doing what they’re doing.

But, again, we can’t abandon the people of Venezuela to Maduro and his thuggishness. And there are literally dungeons in that country full of people who wanted nothing more than to be able to vote and have a free and fair election. And, you know, we talk about elections, and I always—you know, Chavez and Maduro are the biggest election violators, you know, in the world. So and they were using those elections as a cover for their dictatorial rule. So we can’t forget them. We got to stand with the Venezuelan people. But if there’s some way to help the Venezuelan people through this policy, maybe that’s useful. I just don’t know.

SALAMA: Right. Yes. Question here.

Q: Kimberly Reed, former chairman of the Export-Import Bank. And I want to thank you for all you did to support economic security, in addition to our nation’s national security. You are amazing.

O’BRIEN: You’re amazing too, Kim. Thank you.

Q: Oh. (Laughs.) I was with the ambassador from Ukraine to the United States yesterday, Oksana Markarova. And we were focused on reconstruction and recovery, the topics. And obviously she’s very aware of Ex-Im. But she, I feel, wants to see more U.S. business come into Ukraine as part of this recovery. And I sense it’s not happening as much as it could. And, you know, there’s concern that other countries are going to fill that void in the future, including, perhaps, China. Just any thoughts on how we can help that, but yet still embrace free market?

SALAMA: Any sectors in particular?

Q: I think all sectors, but infrastructure, obviously.

O’BRIEN: Well, thank you, Kim. Super question. And Kim just did a great job as the chairman of Ex-Im. And I used to like, when I was flying around to foreign governments to deal with security issues, Kim would come with me. Adam Boehler at DFC would come with me. Because what you realize is politicians everywhere, they want to hear about bases, and they want to hear about security agreements. But what they really want to hear about is jobs. And so Kim and Adam and our economic team—I was very proud of the work they did. Because we had to offer more than just an aircraft carrier, right, as the United States. We have to offer a better future for our friends and allies. And our economic programs are key to that. Larry Kudlow was a key player there, and Secretary Mnuchin.

Look, when it comes to Ukraine part of the issue with rebuilding is it’s hard to rebuilt right now because the war is hot, and it’s active. And, you know, you see infrastructure being destroyed by these Iranian drones and Russian missiles every day. So you want to be careful about how you stage the timing for the rebuilding, because you don’t want to go in and spend billions of dollars, only to have the billion dollar project or the multibillion dollar project destroyed the next day by Russian bombs, or drones, or missiles. So that’s an issue. I know the Ukrainians would like it to be faster, but I think that’s issue number one.

Issue number two, though, you make a good point, Kim. And that is, you know, as Americans we’ve intervened in a number of countries, you know, around the world. And we always try to keep business separate from that, because it’s—you know, we don’t want to appear that we’re attempting to gain an advantage for, you know, General Motors, or Ford, or GE—for an American company that our military action in some ways is related to some economic gain for the United States of America. And I think that’s how we are as Americans. And that’s something that’s happened in Republican and Democratic administrations. We’ve never wanted to appear that we were using our military might or our diplomatic might in kind of a crass pursuit of economic gain.

Having said that, when we invest in Ukraine the way we have at $43 billion a year for the first year—and there’s probably another $43 (billion) or $50 billion next year—when the time is right for reconstruction, whether it’s construction companies, you know, the Floors (sp) of the world, Parsons (sp), or Morrison-Knudsen’s, or, you know, the big companies—the Haliburton’s, they have to have an opportunity to participate. And I hope our Ukrainian friends are going to look at—and whether it’s airline landing slots, or whatever the issue is, you know, good deals on exports and on tariffs—I hope that they’ll look at the investment that the American people made in their freedom and realize that there’s a benefit in having America involved—economically involved in their country.

So, you know, again, I don’t think we should make it a condition. I don’t think we should make American commerce and take advantage of our support for democracy and freedom around the world for economic gain. But at the same time, we ought to make sure that the Chinese aren’t benefitting, you know, from our efforts and our blood and treasure. I mean, I keep thinking of the copper mine in Afghanistan, which, you know, we built a road, we supplied the security, and the Chinese took the copper out of Afghanistan and took it back to China. And that sort of thing is absurd. And we need to make sure that doesn’t happen. But, again, we ought to be looking for every opportunity we can for American companies and the American people to show that our products and our skills are better than anyone else’s, and be given a fair chance to compete, and not let the Chinese come in with either dumping, or unfair, you know, low interest rates, or below-market economic activity, to steal American jobs or American opportunity, for sure.

SALAMA: Mmm hmm, yeah. Yes, we have a question right here.

Q: Sabeen Dhanani, USAID.

So given that the majority of microchips are currently manufactured in Taiwan, do you worry that the CHIPS Act and moving this manufacturing to the United States actually sends a signal to China that we’re actually—the U.S. is actually—huh? That the U.S. is actually, like, you know, reducing our interest in the Taiwan Strait, and actually making them more vulnerable?

O’BRIEN: No. Look, I think it’s just the opposite. I think that having such a concentration of the advanced chipmaking—and the chipmaking you’re referring to is probably 90 percent of the world market for advanced chips, the really small nanometer chips. Those come from TSMC in Taiwan. And I think it provides a perverse incentive for the Chinese, who have not been able to develop a chip manufacturing capability at the high levels—they can do the commodities chips but they can’t do the high-level chips. They haven’t figured out the secret sauce yet. That’s what an incentive, beyond the geopolitical benefits that come from taking Taiwan, if they could get ahold of the TSMC factories and related labs and that sort of thing, you know, that would give the Chinese a stranglehold—the Communist Party of China—a stranglehold on chipmaking.

We can never allow that to happen. And so I think TSMC diversifying and having factories in Arizona, in the Netherlands, in the U.K., you know, around the world—in India—around the world, is good for TSMC. It’s good for the company. It builds support for the company in Taiwan in those countries. And it takes away some of the incentive that the Chinese might have to otherwise invade. I mean, look, one of the concerns is if the Chinese—if the Chinese launched an amphibious invasion, and it looked like it might eventually be successful, what does the U.S. do with those factories? I mean, do we have a situation like Churchill faced with the French fleet? And can we allow—you know, and I think the situation will be different five years from now, with the new factories that are being built here because of the CHIPS Act. But in the meantime, can we allow the—you know, the equivalent of the Germans taking the French fleet? Churchill didn’t allow that. Could we allow that?

So it’s a—I think it’s a little—I think the TSMC situation is a little provocative for China right now, and doesn’t provide security. In fact, it counterintuitively lessens the security of Taiwan, in my view. But a great question. And thanks for all the good work you’re doing at USAID. You know, we can’t do the diplomacy well without—you know, some people aren’t big fans on my side of the aisle, but USAID does a lot of great work around the world and is a, you know, hand-in-hand complement to what we do on the diplomatic front. So thank you for your service there.

SALAMA: Any member questions? Yes, sir, in the back.

Q: Nathan Fleischaker. I work for the DOD.

Question about the defense industrial base. Sir, you mentioned a couple times technology and work in technology to important. But right now, we see a situation where a lot of our inventory for ammunition is going very low, shipbuilding is 300 to one—or, China is 300 to one over U.S. Understand free market, but what’s the role of the government in encouraging the defense industrial base within the U.S. for some of these conventional technologies?

O’BRIEN: Yeah. Good question. And it’s a real concern. I mean, one of the things that we’re concerned about right now is we’re putting so much into Ukraine, as we should, with key stockpiles of whether it’s Stingers, or Javelins, or other platforms. Those are the very same things that China—that Taiwan needs to deter China. I’ve written about Taiwan becoming a porcupine and, you know, using some A2/AD capacity themselves to deter China, the way that China has deterred us. But a lot of the equipment they need and the platforms they need we’re sending to Ukraine right now. So we can’t get them to—even though we’ve approved sales to Taiwan, we can’t get the—we can’t get Taiwan what it needs to deter China, because we’re sending it to Ukraine. And heaven forbid we get pulled into a war, especially a great-power war or conflict. We’re not going to have the stockpiles for our own men and women in uniform.

So we’ve let our industrial base shrink. We’ve let it get incredibly fragile. And there are many single sources of failure in our industrial base, including in shipbuilding and, you know, the number of places where one factory that produces the widget that we need to complete a major platform is scary. We put out a report on this in the administration. Look, I think the Biden administration is cognizant of this issue. And so I think we’re going to need not just the CHIPS Act, not just Section 89—the new amendment 89 in the NDAA that’s pending now to keep out commodity chips out of American platforms and make sure that we’re buying those from U.S. or trusted partner manufacturers, and support those new foundries that are being built.

I think we probably need a Ships Act. I mean, the shipbuilding situation in America is a disaster. It’s very fragile. We need submarines to deter the Chinese in the Taiwan Strait, but, you know, an incredible number of our submarines are tied up alongside at the two facilities that can repair them. We no longer have Mare Island on the West Coast. We’ve just let our industrial base, our shipbuilding base, deteriorate to a point where we can’t compete with the Chinese. So we’ve got to do something to fix it. Private industry is a huge part of that. There’s going to have to be a public-private partnership. And we’re going to have to—again, I don’t like spending money. I don’t like spending money on industrial policy. But we’re going to have to spend some money. And we probably need a Ships Act in addition to the CHIPS Act for the Navy. And there are probably other areas where we’re going to need to invest as well.

SALAMA: Expanding the Navy is something that you’ve written about quite a bit, and you were involved in it heavily when you were in the administration. Do you worry—I don’t have the number in front of me, but I believe you were aiming for a fleet of 355, if I’m not mistaken? Do you worry that the challenges outside of the Indo-Pacific right now are basically going to stall any effort to expand the Navy to a level that you think we need to counter China?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, it should. And we’re big enough and we’re wealthy enough as a country to walk and chew gum at the same time. So we can deal with the A2/AD and the missiles and still build the ships that we need for Ukraine, and that we need for Taiwan, and still build ships. I mean, the idea that America, you know, which produces the greatest warships in the world, just can’t service our ships, that we have to, you know, divest to invest, you know, this latest mantra from the Navy, which is just ludicrous, that we have to get rid of our current ships that are healthy and are better than the Chinese, and have ten, twenty, thirty years of ship life—that we have to get rid of those so that we can build a ship ten years from now, I mean, it’s—again, I don’t understand that kind of philosophy. It’s a catchy phase.

But we need to be able to maintain our ships. We need to be able to give ship life extensions where necessary, for, like, the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which are incredibly effect missile ships that the Chinese are terrified of. And we also need to bring on new ships. And we need to be able to bring on new platforms and ships in, like, a two- or three-year period, like the Chinese are doing, with iterative manufacturing and using the same techniques that Silicon Valley uses, instead of taking ten, or fifteen, or twenty years to bring a new platform to the forces. So we got some work to do, and it’s going to cost us some money. But, look, I think we can get to where we need to be. We had a plan at the end of the administration, after a lot of work and some criticism and some controversy. But we got a plan to get to 355 that was funded within the budget. And we need to get there.

But it’s more than that. We also need—we’re going to need unmanned vehicles, underwater unmanned vehicles, surface unmanned vehicles, you know, more diverse UAVs. We’re going to have to—you know, I’ve got a daughter who’s a pilot. Pilots don’t like to hear this. But we’re going to have to fly, you know, deep strike unmanned vehicles off of carriers that can both refuel and also strike our enemies, to increase the range of our carriers. So it’s not just the 355, you know, big, you know, ship of the line ships, but we need a lot to go with it.

SALAMA: We only have about two minutes left. If there are no other member questions, I will ask one more quick one. There were too many topics to list that we’re not getting to, unfortunately. But I do want to ask, with a Republican majority in Congress, there’s talk of a potential investigation into the Afghanistan withdrawal. And so I’m curious if you, A, believe that that is something is warranted. But, B, also, the—there are several administrations that probably should speak to the withdrawal, because it was several years in the making. And so would you and your former colleagues also be willing to come in front of Congress and testify about efforts to withdraw, talks with the Taliban, et cetera? And do you think that should be the case, just to get a full picture?

O’BRIEN: Well, look, I think the—when we left office, I think the most important thing to realize is we left office with 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the president’s support. That was, you know, a matter of some debate. But more importantly, we had 5,000 NATO troops there. And people don’t realize this. Jens Stoltenberg was—is a great statesman and was a good colleague of mine. And we made sure that we had the 5,000 NATO troops, the 2,500 U.S. troops, and all the contractors that supported them. So things were in a pretty decent state. We hadn’t had an American killed in Afghanistan since the agreement was signed almost a year earlier.

You know, one of the worst parts of the job is going to Dover for dignified transfer of the remains of our fallen heroes. And those are—those are very tough days. And I went six times in office, three with the president, three representing the president, to try to comfort the family for those terrible days for the families of our fallen soldiers, and sailors, and Marines, and airmen. And so we’d gotten to a state where Americans weren’t being killed in Afghanistan, where there was general—some stability. And the government of Afghanistan was talking with the Taliban.

And unfortunately, that situation changed dramatically. I mean, what we saw, you know, happen was a national humiliation. I mean, we’ve never left Americans behind. You know, we sent a message to the world. Look, all of us wanted to—I don’t disagree with President Biden’s goal of getting American troops out of Afghanistan and getting America out of Afghanistan. I think that was something we all agreed on. But the manner in which it took place was—you know, had really tough effects, and I think led to the Ukraine situation and led to some of the threats against Taiwan. So—

SALAMA: But the release of Taliban prisoners also came under the previous administration, and that may have fueled the situation.

O’BRIEN: Look, I think the situation was in good shape when we left. And there were Americans who came home. We had a robust peace process in place. Certainly, the government of Afghanistan was not moving as fast as they should have moved. What we really should have had was some sort of coalition government or government of national unity that would have allowed us to get out and not had the chaotic Taliban takeover that happened. So, look, I think it’s important to find out what happened and get to the bottom of it.

But at the same time, we can’t spend our time—and this is for my GOP friends, and I campaigned for a lot of the guys who are in Congress now and campaigned for a few people who didn’t make it—but we got to move forward as a country. And we’ve got an existential threat with the Communist Party of China, that doesn’t want to just dominate China. It doesn’t want to just oppress their own people. They want to change our very way of life. And we’ve got a war in Ukraine. And so it’s important to look at what happened in Afghanistan and make sure it doesn’t—something like that doesn’t happen again. But we also need to really focus on the future. And I think the China Commission that Speaker McCarthy—future Speaker McCarthy is talking about, is going to be a bipartisan way to bring Congress together to address some of the national security and foreign policy issues that we’re facing, to help the administration by providing some pressure from Congress on the China issue. And I think it’s an area of bipartisan cooperation that can help bring the country together.

So I think Afghanistan’s important, but I think it’s also important that we come together and look, going forward, how do we make sure that we maintain our way of life? How do we protect our national security? And how do we keep the American dream alive, not just for us, but to be the beacon of hope for other countries and oppressed people around the world, including people that have protested in Iran, and China, and other places, that want a better life. And so I think that’s what we got to be focused on going forward. And I mean, important to get to the bottom of what happened. But let’s focus on an agenda for keeping America safe in the future.

SALAMA: These are heavy and important issues. Unfortunately, that’s all the time that we have. Ambassador Robert O’Brien, thank you so much. And thank you all for joining our hybrid meeting. Just a reminder that a transcript and video will be available on CFR’s website. Thank you so much for joining us and have a great day. (Applause.)

O’BRIEN: Thanks, Vivian. Great work.



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