United States Senator (R-AZ)
Washington Columnist, Los Angeles Times
Senator Jeff Flake discusses the role of Congress in U.S. foreign policy.
MCMANUS: Good morning. I'm Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. I'm today's moderator.
Welcome to all of you today.
We unusually have an on-the-record session, so you are all released from the council's draconian rules not to—not to quote or cite.
Our guest, as you know, is Senator Jeff Flake, the junior senator from Arizona. You have his biography; you know his biography.
I'll just say two words about Senator Flake. As a—as a native Californian, it is perplexing to all Californians to look at Arizona and notice that its legislators always punch above the weight of what appears to be—us—to be a small state.
Arizona has a history of—of producing members of Congress, especially of the Senate, who are conservative but fiercely independent and remarkably effective. You only have to think of Barry Goldwater and John McCain. And Jeff Flake, in many ways, follows in that tradition but has already staked out some interesting ground of his own.
He is still in his first term in the Senate but served four terms in the House --
Is that ...
MCMANUS: Six. How—how quickly time flies—so he knows his way around.
He is the—he is on the Foreign Relations Committee—of course, the ranking member of the Africa committee, having spent serious time in Africa, in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia—and has done interesting work reaching across the aisle to Democrats and has interesting positions and views on a—on a range of foreign policy and domestic issues and has a few words to start off with this morning.
And so, Senator Flake, I'm going to give you the podium for about 10 minutes.
FLAKE: All right.
MCMANUS: And then we'll revert to our usual Q and A. I'll take 10 or 15 minutes and—and open it to the audience.
FLAKE: Sounds good.
MCMANUS: Senator, thank you for being with us.
FLAKE: Thank you.
I appreciate the opportunity. I'm usually referred to or introduced as "the other senator from Arizona."
FLAKE: And y'all know why. We have a—a more prominent senator.
But Arizona has been a state now for a hundred years, and we have had only 11 U.S. senators in a hundred years. So they tend to serve prominently and for a long time. And I'll probably break that tradition, but—in terms of the prominence. But I—I appreciate this opportunity. And thank you, Doyle.
And I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for this opportunity to discuss Congress's role in foreign policy.
Now my views on this issue, on foreign policy, haven't changed much, having spent six years—I'm sorry—six terms in the House, but one benefit of this new position is that people now seem to be a little more interested in my position on these issues. That's one thing that—that comes, I guess, with the Senate.
As Doyle mentioned, I cut my teeth in southern Africa and—and watching Namibia become independent. I would live the political junkie's dream to be there when a country has its first election and writes its constitution.
But international affairs has long-captivated my interest. Having had a chance to serve on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs with such luminaries as Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, I was grateful to have the chance to continue this work in the Senate.
But in my view, Congress's role in foreign policy revolves around advancing three major goals. First and foremost, it's our job to protect U.S. international interests by reinforcing U.S. leadership abroad.
Second, our national interest is best served when U.S.—the U.S. promotes and supports principles of liberty and the democratic process abroad.
And finally, just as with domestic policy, Congress has an obligation to protect U.S. taxpayers from wasteful or egregious spending in our foreign policy.
With those as guiding principles, my efforts in foreign policy have sometimes led me down a different path than some of my colleagues, often against prevailing political winds. My efforts to modernize our U.S.-Cuba policy is just one example.
I've long sought to remedy what I view as a backward policy and lack of U.S. leadership by pushing for an end of our outdated Cuban economic embargo, an embargo that now represents five years of failed policy that has diminished the United States' role regionally.
As I see it, ending the Cuban travel ban is not just—or the Cuba travel ban—is not just a—I'm sorry. Ending the travel ban is not a retreat but rather a get-tough policy with the Cuban regime. I've often said, only half-jokingly, if we really want to punish the Castro brothers, just make them deal with Spring Break once or twice.
FLAKE: We might see the white flag raised pretty quickly.
But the—the—the ban on traveling to the island is at best a needless restriction on the freedom of U.S. citizens, and at worst, it treats various groups holding U.S. passports differently. A travel ban is difficult to square with promoting liberty for anybody. I continue—I will continue to work to see it lifted.
And with headlines detailing a failed faux-Twitter program with U.S. funds and a faux HIV clinic run by USAID as cover for quasi-covert activities in Cuba—these activities, I should say, that diminish USAID's role around the world—U.S.-Cuba programming is clearly in need of some adult supervision.
With Congress all but abdicating any role in the appropriation process, this kind of oversight is becoming increasingly difficult.
Now, speaking of appropriations, this process has become more dysfunctional as time has gone on. To say that the process in Congress is broken is an understatement. The last time a foreign operations appropriation bill was signed into law as a stand-alone bill was 2005.
At the same time, legislation to authorize foreign policy initiatives has often gone by the wayside. The House and Senate committees work on important measures, but it's rare that these ever come to the floor let alone are signed into law. Instead, we leave it to appropriators to include riders in the year-end omnibus spending measures, riders that cannot be amended or debated.
Clearly, oversight is difficult under these terms. And in addition, I think we can all agree that it's difficult to promote U.S. leadership and liberty abroad in a sustainable fashion without congressional input and effort. I think we can also all agree that with the threats we're seeing from the Middle East to our interests as well as our allies', that the stakes have never been higher than they are today.
Our position in the world was always stronger when Congress and the president a united front. Unfortunately, it appears that the president will continue to undertake actions to combat ISIL without any official congressional authorization of the mission. Even worse, too many members of Congress have all but said they don't want to vote on it—at least not until after the elections.
Now, since coming to Congress in 2001, I've noticed it seems Congress has been satisfied with abdicating more of its foreign policy role to the White House. In return, the White House is more than happy to circumvent Congress. Take, for example, the strategic partnership agreement meant to loosely define the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan in the—in a period for 10 years, signed by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai in May of 2012—I'm sorry—2012.
Among other things, this agreement includes promises that the executive branch will seek military and economic for Afghanistan from Congress. It also conferred on Afghanistan major non-NATO ally status.
President Karzai sought the approval of the Loya Jirga for this agreement, and the Afghan nationals simply ratified the final strategic partnership agreement. Yet the Senate—our Senate—conducted no votes on this agreement.
For the White House, I'm sure it's easy to treat the SPA as an executive agreement because it deprives the Senate of any chance to influence U.S. policy going forward in Afghanistan. The result is that no congressional buy-in—that we have no congressional buy-in, and it leaves the aid outlined in the SPA at the mercy of annual appropriators and the appropriations process that hasn't been working in Congress. That's no way to—to treat a strategic partner.
But any vote on the strategic partnership agreement would be a hard one to take, and Congress has little appetite for tough votes these days. Last summer's debate on congressional authorization of strikes in Syria effectively demonstrated that reality.
As we all recall, President Obama asked Congress to authorize the use of military force to degrade Bashar al-Assad's ability to wage war using chemical weapons. Now none of in Congress were consulted when the president announced in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war was a red line that would change his calculus on U.S. military involvement there. Yet we were put in the position of having to tell the president whether he could make good on his threat.
I don't believe the president needed authorization from Congress to carry out the mission as it was described to us, and I voted in favor of the AUMF because I believe that to deny a president the authority to respond to a threat he previously made would damage American leadership and credibility. The purpose of seeking congressional authorization should not be to provide justification for not doing something that you said that you'd do.
In this case, a lack of action helped prolonged the status quo, and it has enabled ISIL to grow in strength. Further, the absence of leadership sent a powerful message to our allies and our adversaries alike that the United States doesn't always mean what it says.
Now, more than ever, we need to correct that message and reassert the United States as a world leader. We need to tell our allies in the region that the U.S. is going to help them defeat ISIL. What better way to do this than to vote to authorize the president or the mission that the president announced last week that our military will undertake?
The president has said that he welcomes congressional support for the mission, but he didn't ask for it and it appears there will be no push in either chamber to give it to him. Instead, we will consider providing authorization for funding for moderate elements of the Syrian opposition as part of the continuing resolution. The House will vote on that today and the Senate, likely tomorrow.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill to do that same thing, and in May of 2013, more than a year ago, the House Foreign Affairs Committee authorized or advanced a similar bill in March of that same year. And so U.S. military action and efforts to combat ISIL in Iraq and Syria will be considered as business as usual, and Congress' silence on this will be deafening.
The president needs to ask Congress for its support, and Congress needs to show it by way of a vote. I say this not because I believe the president is constitutionally bound to get Congress' approval. The question of where the president's foreign policy powers end and where Congress's begin is left unanswered by the Constitution. I say this because securing the backing of Congress on any major foreign policy effort reinforces the United States' leadership. It reassures our allies and most importantly sends a message to our adversaries that the United States is in fact united.
History shows that when there is a threat to this nation and the president makes a good case for action, Congress will lend its support. A 2001 authorization for the use of military force in the wake of the September 11th attacks was approved by the House by a vote of 420 to 1. Similarly, a 2002 AUMF in Iraq was approved by both chambers with strong bipartisan support.
Last week, the president himself said that the mission to combat ISIL will take time. And without a voice from this Congress to sustain and support him in this effort, I fear this critical mission will be subject to partisan attack for political gain in the months and years to come. Neither the president nor the Congress has demonstrated leadership in this effort, and the stakes are far too high to move forward without it.
Switching gears for a minute, it's no secret, I'm not a fan of egregious spending, domestically or internationally, and in my House days, I fought some pretty lonely battles against wasteful and destructive earmarks.
Foreign assistance, in my view, is critical, and a necessary component of American diplomacy. It safeguards national security interests. But when that assistance is rife with waste, it undermines the public confidence in the value of that assistance. I'm referring to things like the aforementioned Cuba debacles and other foreign assistant programs and projects that, while well-intended, are not sustainable beyond our mission in places like Afghanistan. We have a duty to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money while being mindful of our role in the world.
Finally, let me just say a couple of words about the role of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It will come as no surprise that, as one who spent 12 years in the House of Representatives running for reelection every two years, I think that the six-year Senate term was the founding fathers' premier achievement.
But the six-year term's lies not in giving senators a break from the semi-annual campaign grind. It allows senators individually, and the Senate as an institution, to look beyond the current administration, particularly in matters of foreign policy.
That said, I don't think the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is maximizing its potential when it comes to its foreign policy role.
Now, naturally, much of our time is spent authorizing programs, dealing with nominations, providing oversight for spending and reacting to events that require our urgent attention, like those events today. But far too little time is spent probing and addressing the broader context and the trends in which our policies interact.
Now scholars from CFR and other organizations are discussing this broader context. There might not be a new world order, but think we can all agree that the old order upon which much of our foreign policy has been based and formulated has been shattered. The Senate and the country would benefit if these discussions were brought from think-tanks and editorial pages into the public arena.
In closing, if you ask me what I think the role of Congress in foreign affairs ought to be, I would say it is to ensure that we carry on the tradition of past generations, of ensuring that our kids and grandkids can live and prosper in the greatest nation in the world. I would say that it is—it is in our national interest to promote freedom and liberty abroad. I would say that we need to ensure that scarce resources are put to the highest possible use.
But before all of that can happen, clearly, Congress need to actually want to have a role in the first place. Votes on foreign policy matters aren't always easy to take. They can often leave you politically exposed. But we are elected to Congress to take tough votes, and given the situation we find ourselves in today, it's my hope that we get back into that business.
Thank you for having me here, and I look forward to questions that you might have.
FLAKE: Could we move this back so we can see the whole room? Or is that possible?
MCMANUS: Let me just try. There we go.
FLAKE: Just --
MCMANUS: There's an initiative—there's a senatorial initiative right there.
MCMANUS: Anyway, thank you. Thank you for that—that—that (inaudible).
Let me take just a few minutes to frame a couple of questions and then we will go quickly, swiftly, to this hungry audience.
And I want to start sort of in the—on—on the big picture on the themes you began and ended your remarks, which is the—the challenge of—of American strategy, American foreign policy—maybe you'd call it the central challenge of American foreign policy—in—in this era.
You set out two or three priorities—big—big strategic goals: protecting U.S. national interests through leadership, continuing to promote democracy and liberty, but you also mentioned being a careful steward of—of scarce resources.
And it seems to me, and not just me but smarter people at the Council, like Steve Sestanovich and Richard Haass, that one of the central challenges we face is adjusting American strategy to an era of limits, of austerity. President Obama has addressed it by attempting to, in Steve Sestanovich's words, minimize our commitments abroad.
What's—what's your basic answer to squaring that circle? How do we maintain leadership while doing, or at least spending, less?
FLAKE: Well, I mean there are several elements to effective leadership abroad. Only one is military. We've made liberal use of that over the past couple of decades.
Regular statecraft and diplomacy has not been fully utilized, in my view. If we look at Iraq right now, we continually say that there is no military solution; there has to be a political solution. If that is the case, then it seems to me we should have been more active on the political side during the past several years.
We had a situation this morning. We've learned that, you know, the parliament has rejected the interior and defense ministers that the new prime minister has put forward. It's going to be difficult, extremely difficult, to—to root out ISIL and—and—and to defend and stand up an Iraqi government just through military means if the political effort isn't there. So diplomacy needs to be there. And obviously, foreign aid will be an essential part of our diplomatic and foreign policy arsenal.
But—but there are limits, and we have to make sure that we're careful stewards of that—that money and we haven't been, in certain circumstances. So I—I would submit that a lot of our spending, some of it on the military side and some of it elsewhere in Afghanistan, has not followed the model that we need to. So we—we have simply—have got to be more careful there. But that will always be a part of it.
And then, with regard to trade, as well, and economic development, that's another tool that we need to use more effectively, and that's why we need to move forward over the next year to make sure that we approve the TPP, for example, and give the president trade promotion authority.
So we're just going to have to make more effective use of other elements in our arsenal, rather than just military action.
MCMANUS: And the defense budget as a—as a basic proposition—are you comfortable with the direction it's heading?
FLAKE: Well, I—I've—I think all of us have been troubled by Congress's inability to set priorities, which have necessitated, you know, kind of clumsy across-the-board cuts that have, in—in my view, probably diminished our military readiness more than it should.
And so I hope that we get back to—to regular order where we can set these priorities, and then that's going to involve—obviously, we—we've got to—the biggest threat out there—when, I think it was, Admiral Mullen was asked what keeps him up at night, he didn't say Iran and its military threat or anything else. He said the national debt because unless we get that under control, nothing else we do matters much. We won't be able to fund a defense program or anything else.
And so it's extremely important, but in order to do that, it has to be a more all-encompassing approach involving, certainly, entitlement spending.
Now, we're going into a period, in my view—whether or not Republicans take control of the Senate; as a Republican, I hope we do—we will have divided government for the next two years. But keep in mind, over the past couple of decades, several decades, the only real reforms on the fiscal side that we've achieved have been with divided government. You have to have because no one party, if you control both chambers and the White House, will dare to make the—the tough choices. With mid-terms right around the corner, you have to have both parties buying in. And—and hopefully we'll have that scenario coming up soon. We need it.
MCMANUS: Iraq and ISIL—are you satisfied that at this point we have clear goals and the right strategy?
FLAKE: I—I'm sure—I mean the goals are—are certainly there.
The strategy—I'm concerned that—that we—we haven't been as effective on the diplomatic side and putting the pressure on the political sides that we need to.
It's going to be very difficult to have a sustainable situation without an inclusive government in Baghdad, and the news today continues to be that that's a long way off. And so I—I hope that—you know, we continue to say there's no military solution here; that's certainly an element that has to be there. If that is the case, we need to be more effective and active on the political front, on the diplomatic front.
MCMANUS: On a tactical level, General Dempsey yesterday introduced the proposition that under some circumstances, he might recommend to the president that American combat troops operate with Iraqis as close combat advisors; not necessarily as direct combatants.
Are you comfortable with that prospect?
FLAKE: Well, I'm—I'm certainly comfortable that we have admitted we're considering that strategy. If—if our Pentagon—if the military brass has not been considering all options, they aren't doing their job, and—and I—I think that his voicing of that opinion is simply recognizing reality that those are options that are—that are out there. And so I—I think anybody's who's looked at this deeply—that was no surprise.
And we have about 1,600, whether you call them boots on the ground or not, people embedded perhaps not in front lines but helping the military. And it—it only makes sense that we have considered the possibility.
I, like everyone, hope that we don't have to go there, but I—I'm glad that the Pentagon is thinking about it.
MCMANUS: Well, the president has—has, in effect, staked out a—a red line of—of—a new U.S. combat role on the ground. Is that appropriate or is that an option that should stay open?
FLAKE: Well, we haven't done too well with red lines in the past, and this is one that—I think we'll get ourselves in trouble if we—if we emphasize too much.
One, our success depends on the ability to assemble an effective coalition, particularly among regional players, more so than we've had before. And—and they have to be convinced that we're in it to win it. And so I think drawing red lines here or there or everywhere limits our ability to put together effective coalitions.
MCMANUS: And finally, you talked with—with vigor and passion about the—the—your view that Congress ought to be authorizing this action in Iraq and Syria, ought to be debating this action.
Yes, as you say, the president has said he would be happy to have it but doesn't need it and hasn't asked for it. But last time I looked, there's nothing to prevent members of Congress from introducing and pressing for a debate on authorization themselves.
I sometimes feel these days if we collected the—the—the names of all the members of Congress who said, you know, we ought to be debating and authorizing this, you might have a working majority already.
MCMANUS: So how come that ain't happening?
FLAKE: That's a—that's a good point, and I—when I say that the president ought to ask for it and the Congress ought to provide it, I'm being critical of both.
Right now, the president, I think, should be more forceful in saying 'this is in our national interest because this is a mission that is of necessity; going to outlast my time in the White House'. This is a critical mission that is going to have to endure longer than he's around, and it only makes sense that we'll be more effective if we present a united front.
But like I said, a—a—a lot of my colleagues simply say 'let's not do anything the president hasn't asked for'—and—'at least not until after the election'—and I think that's just the wrong approach to take. And that kind of mirrors the votes we've taken in Congress, just not taking tough votes. The dysfunction in the Senate, more than anything else, is rooted in the unwillingness of the majority—and I'm not just blaming this majority; we were trending this direction when Republicans were in the majority—the reluctance and unwillingness to take tough votes.
And as I said, a six-year term is a wonderful thing especially after being in the House, but with that ought to come the responsibility to take tough votes. You have a little longer time to explain them, and we just haven't done that in the Senate.
MCMANUS: Let's give the audience a chance. There are lots of pent-up questions here.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Good morning, Senator—Will Davis, with the United Nations Development Program here in Washington.
I know Washington officials hate hypothetical questions, but you've already touched on the potential change in control of the Senate, so maybe I can tempt you.
As a potential chairman of the Africa Subcommittee on the Foreign Relations Committee, what priorities might you pursue to help reinvigorate the Foreign Relations Committee role in shaping U.S.-Africa policy?
FLAKE: Well, thanks.
And by the way, on Africa, I was pleased to see the president stand yesterday and talk about a more robust role for the U.S. government in combating Ebola. I spoke to Liberian president yesterday. They're extremely appreciative, and I think it was the right thing to do.
With regard to Africa, I—I—as I mentioned, I spent time there in the early '80s, and then in the late '80s again, and I—I—I love the continent. And I—I have enjoyed seeing so many countries move ahead and grow economically and otherwise.
And the U.S. role, it is underappreciated how appreciated the U.S. role was, particularly with the AIDS crisis there, with Pepfar. We gained a lot of good will. I know that—that—that the motivation was to save lives and that it did and made life better for a lot of individuals and countries. But it certainly enhanced our ability to influence the direction of policy in Africa by being involved. And I applaud the president—President Bush—for—for doing that.
President Obama's power initiative that has been pushed is a good thing. I would hope that we could expand on that.
What I hope we do is—is—is actually with regard to Africa and power, and that is the main impediment to development in many of these countries, that—that we keep in mind that that is the primary goal; not to push some kind of energy agenda on Africa, but actually allow them, to help them develop—develop their economies through power. So that's a big initiative.
And then overall, with—with trade, we've got GOA (ph) that has been useful in—in helping these—some of these countries develop. But there's a real competition in—in many African countries between which model (ph) to go. And China has been very active.
All things equal, most of these African countries and private-sector businesses and others that we deal with would rather deal with U.S. businesses or with the U.S. government than China. China tends to bring in personnel and employment. It's much more sustainable if it's done with the U.S. or with the West. And so I think that we need to be more active there.
I—I've been pleased with the caliber of ambassadors that are—go to Africa. We approve those nominations with Africa. It's mostly career service employees that are State Department employees, and that's a good thing.
And—and so I think we're—we've done some good things over the past decade. We've got to continue to respond to things like Ebola and also the crisis in—in Central African Republic and South Sudan. But also, look beyond and look at trade and sustainable development.
MCMANUS: We have a question in front of you.
QUESTION: Thanks. Welcome to the Council, Senator. I'm Steve Charnovitz. I'm a professor at George Washington University. And I teach in the international trade area and wanted to thank you for your leadership. You're one of the few in the Congress that actually says you believe in international trade, and you've—and you've worked hard on free trade.
You talked about Cuba and our 50-year-long embargo which has not been very effective. I'm wondering what you think of the strategy of Cuba bringing a case against the United States at the WTO. Right now in the Congress, there's not much chance of changing our current law.
But other countries have brought cases against the United States at the WTO and won, like Antigua or Malaysia or many countries around the world, and clearly, our embargo against Cuba violates WTO law. So I wonder if you think it would be helpful for Cuba to bring a case against the United States in the WTO court and see if that can change the political dynamics in the United States.
FLAKE: No, I don't. I—I don't think that—that that would be productive if Cuba were to bring such a case, and it would be a ruling in their favor. And I don't think there would be.
But it would do nothing but push Congress the other way. And that's my own view.
I—I—I simply think that we're coming to a point. I would have hoped we would have been here a long time ago. But where the prevailing political winds have shifted—the majority of—of Cuban-Americans in Florida favor certainly lifting the travel ban and increased contract and commerce, and they're doing it.
There were about 400,000 visits of Cuban-Americans to Cuba in the past year. With the lifting of the ban on remittances or limits on remittances, money is going to Cuba that is being used outside of—to the extent that it can be—more outside of government control to allow entrepreneurs to—to—to develop.
Now this is far less likely to be dialed back. It's more difficult for the government to dial progress like this back.
So I—I wouldn't favor that strategy. I just hope that we in Congress can—can realize we're behind the times and can shift pretty quickly here.
MCMANUS: Let me follow on that.
Is—can you see a political way there in the next Congress if there is a Republican majority?
FLAKE: That's a difficult one.
It—the way the Hems-Burton law is structured, it makes it difficult for the president to do too much, or for Congress to do too much, without genuine political change in Cuba, regardless of whether this might foster that change more quickly; I would argue it would. So I think that that's—that's a difficult proposition.
The president can do more by further liberalizing the people-to-people contact and whatnot in terms of travel. I think he has done so.
The irony is during my early years in—in the House, I was able to pass legislation around an appropriation bill to lift the travel band or not provide funding to enforce the travel ban. We passed that a couple of times; it was identical language in the Senate. It could not get President Bush to sign it.
Now we could get President Obama to sign it, and I can't pass it. So it's—it's—it's kind of tough. So it's—it's—it's kind of tough there. But I think progress is being made.
The Cuban government is all about control. They want to control visitors who come. If we lifted our travel ban, I have no doubt that they would impose their own restrictions because they want the money that comes with travel, not the influence. But if somebody's gonna limit my travel, it ought to be a Communist.
FLAKE: You know, that's a—that's more their province.
We—we shouldn't be in the business of limiting American travel.
MCMANUS: We have some questions on this side of the room.
QUESTION: You probably don't get too many questions on Namibia—I'm Reed Kramer from All Africa—allafrica.com—but I have one that has broader foreign policy implications.
As you no doubt know, Namibia's coming to the end of a millennium challenge compact which has been directed at upgrading their educational system, training teachers and also building up their tourism to—in a way that promotes jobs and—as well as national income.
They're not eligible for renewal because they are now classified as a middle-income country. The middle income comes from the fact that there's a very wealthy white population as a—a vestige of the Apartheid years, and the Namibians feel they are being punished for their success.
And I'm wondering. MCC has been a very widely welcomed program by both—by—on a bipartisan basis, starting with the Bush administration. But I'm wondering if this is something you think should be addressed in the way they do their business.
FLAKE: I—I'd have to look at it specifically.
But at—at some point, countries do graduate, if you will, or move on to—to—to other, you know, trade and investment regimes or—or—and so I—I wouldn't automatically say, well, hey, just because I've—I, you know, am fond of Namibia and want to see it succeed.
That it's appropriate and proper to change the rules so they can continue? I—I would see it as a plus that they're moving out of that category, however it's defined. And there are obviously scarce resources in the MCC.
And so I'd have to look at it and see, but—I wouldn't rule it out but I wouldn't automatically support it.
MCMANUS: In the middle of the room—sir?
QUESTION: Allan Wendt of—I used to be with the State Department.
Senator, on the front page of the Washington Post, there's a—today—there's a small item. Israel's West Bank Settler Population is Showing Signs of Robust Growth. The United States has traditionally opposed expansion settlers in the West Bank.
What is your view of this situation? Does our opposition go beyond rhetoric? What should we do?
FLAKE: Well, that's a—an extremely thorny and difficult issue and—and has been a major impediment to long-term agreements.
And moving ahead I would want to signal what formula we have to—we have to employ or abide by there, to—to—to, you know, have some resolution. I would say work with the Israeli government and also the PA.
And I wouldn't want to insert myself there and decide how many of the settlements can stay and which ones have to be moved. I think that's a broad-actor negotiation between the government and the PA and the international community.
QUESTION: The issue is expansion, sir.
FLAKE: Right. Well, I—I think that we—we've had enough to say on that regard, and I think it's going to be a—very difficult to have the kind of solution that we've outlined that we support with expansion of the settlements.
QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Kristina Sebelius (ph) with the Embassy of Switzerland.
I wanted to touch on another hot spot, Ukraine, and ask you, are you comfortable with the role that the U.S. has been playing in that conflict so far, and with the cooperation that's been happening with the European Union as far as incrementally increasing sanctions? Or do you think this is sort of a—an area in which the U.S. could increase its leadership and also assert U.S. national priorities?
FLAKE: Well, thank you.
I—I think we all recognize that unless Europe is willing to move more quickly and with more force.
The news, just in the last—last 48 hours or so in terms of the agreement struck in the East shows that Europe is not ready to—to move ahead. I think the—the role of the U.S. ought to be to work with our allies, particularly the Europeans, and to—to have a stronger response.
I—I—I think a united effort there is needed. I'm not sure that we can get out in front of our European allies there too far.
We—we want as much as possible, in this and in other crisises, to—to be in a position where it's—whether it—with—it's with Iran and their nuclear program, whether it's Iran versus the West rather than Iran versus the U.S., the same applies here.
We need to work with our allies, perhaps more forcefully but along with our allies, to convince them to be—to have a more robust program to deter Russian involvement there.
MCMANUS: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Julia Chang Bloch, President of the U.S.-China Education Trust.
Given your deep interest in Africa, your seeming (ph) passion for Cuba and your commitment to free trade, I wonder if you're saying it is the best way to—by investing the bulk of our pressure in blood and in money on the Middle East.
And you have no choice, but I would like the answer.
FLAKE: Well, I would put myself in the "we have no choice" camp. This is—this is something that's been thrust upon us, as I mentioned in my speech.
I don't—I don't believe—and I'm anxious to read Henry Kissinger's new book about the new world order. I think we can all agree that there's no new world order but the old one is gone. And certainly in the Middle East, we're going to be dealing with that—that legacy and trying to put together a new—some kind of new structure or help those countries in—with a new structure for a long time.
And so I—I just don't see any way around investing time, resources and, in some cases, blood in order to protect our own national interest. I wish it were otherwise, but I—I don't see a choice at this point.
MCMANUS: Let me follow up with a slightly different way of framing the question.
Are we in an era where the United States doesn't have the bandwidth, the resources, whatever—whatever factors it needs to be able to do both of these things, to—to—to try and stabilize the Middle East while also rebalancing toward Asia and giving due attention toward Africa and Latin America?
FLAKE: No—now that's a good point.
Obviously, we can and have multitasked in the past with regard to trade and investment, with the exception of some government programs we have, MCC or other preferential trade agreements. These were things we just need to push forward and agree to rather than fund.
And I would put the TPP in that category. That's one where—where we've got to move forward. I've been very disappointed that the White House has not made that more of a priority. That's one where Republicans in Congress will provide most of the votes for. We just need a more concerted effort, not just rhetoric but effort, by the administration to push that—that deal.
We've got—over the past three decades, I think we've only had one trade agreement with Jordan, I believe, and that had more to do with defense than—than commerce, without—without giving the president trade promotion 40 (ph). He—he's got to have that; Congress needs to give it to him. But the administration's going to have to be more active in—in asking for it.
So I—I think that we can do both. We can certainly have a free-trade agenda that we pursue more vigorously while—while we're dealing with these—these other crisises.
MCMANUS: Back to this side of the room.
QUESTION: My name is Reggie Love, Transatlantic Holdings.
You had two good points on—a little unrelated—one on the Power Africa initiative. You mentioned that we shouldn't push policy on the countries in terms of what types of generatrion they look to—to—to use.
Do you think, are there any ties that the U.S. should put on power generation, or types based off what we're currently seeing in our complicated energy markets and—on power generation?
And one other question about—as a ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, with as many countries—I think it was—I read something in there; there were like 55 ambassadors who hadn't been appointed or something.
Do you think there should be a bigger push from you and your colleagues to—to help alleviate that problem, given that some of those posts are in regions that sort of need it?
FLAKE: Well, thank you.
And on—on that last question first, yeah, I—I think that we ought to be—we ought to work faster and be more accommodating.
Where I have jurisdiction over Africa, we move those through pretty quickly, and they're typically non-controversial. They're career foreign service and—not as much controversy there.
For my part, I meet with all of them. We push the hearings as quickly as we can and try to move them ahead.
With regard to the Power Africa initiative, I would first—when I say we shouldn't be pushing an agenda, we have a carbon cap issue that we have waived in annual appropriation bills. But that doesn't do much for the long term and for sustainability or—or certainty moving ahead. And it really complicates the ability of these countries and private-sector interests in these countries tom you know, move capital where they need to and to form the kind of partnerships they need to with this cap possibly being there the next year. And so that's what I've—referring to, specifically.
I—I think that we—we need to obviously be concerned about, long-term, where they get their power. But more than anything, we need to help them develop their own resources and recognize they aren't in the same place that we are, or other developed countries are, and we ought to be more concerned about actually helping them develop their economies than perhaps some of these policies allow.
MCMANUS: I've been neglecting the back of the room.
QUESTION: Hi there. I'm Mark Jacobson. I'm a former Senate Armed Services Committee Staff. I'm currently teaching a course at the George Washington University on Congress and its foreign policy.
I want to follow up on something Reggie pointed out, and that's the—this idea that a lot of nominations, especially for career ambassadors, are being held up.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, I think, does a laudable job of getting the flag and general officers, who require a certain degree of scrutiny, through with—without the politics.
And I'm wondering to what degree you could see the committee building upon the success you spoke about and treating the non-career nominations almost in bulk. Have the hearings, but get them through without—without slowing things down—for some of the controversial non-career appointees.
Related to that, how can you convince your colleagues in the House and some of your colleagues in the Senate that it's important to get abroad the way that you have and travel, not just on CODEL to run around and see what the U.S. is doing but truly understand the world in a time when their constituents often think of trips overseas as junkets. You know, 'I encouraged them to go to Riga in December' or something like that. But it's not that—not that much of a junket.
But I worry about that. I worry about Congress truly understanding the world if it's simply staying in Washington, D.C. in the home—and in the home districts.
FLAKE: Well, thank you. Your—your first question about moving the—these nominations through—you know, it's interesting. When I was in the House, I would look at the Senate and think, 'boy, it would be'—'it would be nice if we in the House had advise and consent. We could weigh in on ambassadorial nomination and Supreme Court appointments and district judges.'
And when I got to the Senate, I just didn't realize that would be all I would be doing.
FLAKE: You know, regular legislation just doesn't move.
But I—I—I for one have—my own philosophy has been the president ought to have his picks unless there is an extraordinary reason otherwise. And so I voted for—for many whom I haven't agreed with philosophically or otherwise. But I think the president ought to have his pick.
I can tell you that with the employing of the nuclear option, it really poisoned the well here and it—it made it difficult for Republicans to just take that and—and not slow up other things. And I hope that when we get into the new congress, that we get beyond this—this silliness.
My own view in—in general just on the—kind of the broader of—of where the Senate is going—I love the traditions and customs of the Senate; particularly the fact that virtually everything is done by unanimous consent or a large-enough supermajority that requires and enables more comity and—and cooperation. That's been the traditional Senate.
I fear that if we have this dysfunction much longer, that—that it won't hold, that people will—will come in with proposals to expand the nuclear option to regular legislation, the Senate will become a pale version of the House, and those who enacted those changes will be applauded for it because it's that, as opposed to the complete dysfunction that we see now.
And so I hope that—that we can get together. I'm participating, as are others, in small groups trying to find a way forward, whether it's by small rule changes or behavioral changes, mostly, where we can get the Senate working again, not just to approve nominees more quickly but to actually consider and amend legislation on the floor and let the votes fall where they may.
It was pointed out the other day—and this is significant—Judge Bork, Clarence Thomas, Judge Alito, Judge Roberts all came to the floor, and it wasn't whether they—they were approved or not, in the case of Bork, it wasn't by filibuster. We had the—some of the most controversial things that have come forward. And just not too long ago, that was and up-or-down vote because not too long ago, people would not have considered using a 60-vote threshold to block this kind of thing. And we've just got to get back to that in the Senate.
With regard to travel, I—I—I've always felt, you know, that you ought to get around; you know?
FLAKE: And—and—and I mean when you have a role in Congress to—a role for oversight for foreign aid or with embassy security or sort of travel to a war zone or for—for whatever reason, it's money well-spent to go around the world and see what we're doing and what we're involved in.
And for a time there, it was popular for some members of Congress to say 'I don't even have a passport'. You know, that was kind of a badge of honor at home; I—I just never saw it that way. But it did come sometimes at a political price.
I, in my last Senate campaign, I had a primary challenge. The peson spent about $9 million in the primary, and his first ad was—he noted that in my 12 years in the House, I had traveled to 39 countries. Then he had a little cartoon Flake Air up there. And—and he had a scrolling list of the countries I'd gone to. I quickly took a look at it and I—I—I knew the guy I was running against. I sent him a text. I said, you forgot Usutu, Morocco...
FLAKE: ...Iraq and one other. And the next week, they changed the ad and added those four countries.
FLAKE: So—so anyway, you sometimes can't win for losing there. But I've—I've always felt that it's something that's, you know, tough to explain sometimes at home, in some audiences. But it's worth it. You just do it because it's needed and—not just official CODEL travel but, you know, going off to a deserted island sometimes; you know?
MCMANUS: We haven't gotten into that.
MCMANUS: We've been very restrained on that subject. We have time...
FLAKE: My staff will thank you...
MCMANUS: We have...
FLAKE: ... for that.
MCMANUS: This may be one of the few audiences in Washington that will not explore that, but we'll wait for later.
We have time for just two last, very quick questions.
QUESTION: Tom Dine, Middle East Broadcasting and Freedom House.
You've used this morning, Senator, words like "united front" or "unity," that politicians don't like to be "politically exposed," "tough votes," et cetera.
So a very tough issue but an important one is both domestic and foreign like trade, and that is immigration.
How did we not ask an Arizona senator about immigration?
Please tell us your—your views. And how can we help unify the nation on this particular subject?
FLAKE: Well, thank you.
I—when I was in the House, I put forward several immigration reform proposals. When I got to the Senate, I just didn't expect to join a gang so quickly. I thought that I left gang life behind after the mean streets of Snowflake, Arizona. You know?
FLAKE: But—but I got there and quickly moved with four Democrats and four Republicans in the so-called "Gang of 8" to draft the immigration bill.
And let me add, that was one exception, one example where the Senate acted like it used to act. A group of—a bipartisan group drafted a bill over about seven months, introduced it, took it to the Judiciary Committee, amended to—you know, a hundred and forty-some times—took it to the Senate floor, amended it again and passed it on a bipartisan basis. And I hope we can do more of that.
But specifically with regard to immigration, I'm—coming from Arizona, I—I've—I've seen where a state and communities have paid a disproportionate price because of the federal government's failure not just to secure the border but to have a rational policy when it comes to immigration.
And it's a difficult—difficult issue politically at home. (inaudible) primary and everything else to—to come out in favor of broad-based immigration reform, but we need it desperately.
Not only do we need a—a more secure—that's self-evidence—we need to—to have a—change our immigration legal structure moving ahead and make sure that we have access to the skilled immigration, the—well, I—I introduced it in the House—something called the STAPLE Act. Basically, if you have a degree from a U.S. university in any of the STEM fields, we ought to staple the green card to your diploma, and that was largely adopted as part of the—a Gang of 8 bill.
But on the low-skill side, too, we're going to have needs that aren't filled now. We—we have to move ahead in terms of policy, and if that doesn't—if that's not enough to convince Republicans, we ought to look at the politics of it and realize that—that we have to deal with this issue politically if we want to win national elections.
And it's not just to appeal to the largest-growing demographic, Hispanics. Although that's important, I—I—I view it that whether you're Hispanic or—or any other group, they expect a national party or the national parties to have a rational policy moving ahead. And if we can't do that, we're not just losing Hispanic votes; we're losing votes across the spectrum.
And I—so I—I just think that we've got to deal with this issue, first and foremost for policy reasons. And—and second, as a Republican, I hope we deal with it for political reasons as well.
MCMANUS: It's an iron rule of the Council that we end on time, even if we have started a few minutes late, so I'm going to apologize to those to whom I—on whom I couldn't call.
You can try to ambush the Senator on his way out.
Let me remind you that, at variance with the usual council rules, this meeting was on the record, so you are solemnly admonished to repeat what you've heard here and to give credit for the good ideas to Senator Flake.
And I hope you will join me in thanking him for the time he's spent with us.
FLAKE: Thank you.