Mac Thornberry, U.S. Representative (R-TX) and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, joins Princeton University’s James Shinn to discuss threats to U.S. national security and Thornberry’s vision for the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the budgets and policies of the military, Department of Defense, and the Pentagon. Thornberry discusses President Obama’s budget proposal, upcoming hearings regarding security threats, and policy reform.
Mac Thornberry on defense budget levels:
“…if you looked at this logically, you would look at the threats, you would develop a strategy, and then resource the strategy. I suspect that's what most people in business would try to do. We don't do that in the federal government. And, you know, it's a fair argument to say how much security is enough? …it's hard to put a quantifiable limit on it. But we don't even, I think, make a decent effort at calculating risk.”
Mac Thornberry on the new budget process, with threat-assessment hearings:
“We're having at least two months of hearings, basically on the threats, on the challenges that we face. And then we're going to have the secretary of defense at the end of that process come and explain to us how the president's budget proposal does or does not meet all of those threats and challenges that we've been hearing about for two months. …we are upending the process, and trying to gain a better understanding of the strategic environment in which we operate before we jump right in to the dollars and cents for this, that and the other thing.”
Mac Thornberry on changes in oversight:
“…what Congress often has done in the past is add new layers of oversight or bureaucracy, and we don't want to do that. We want to thin it down, to simplify it, so there can be accountability for the decisions that are made. Part of the problem now is if a program goes seriously off track, it's hard to know who to hold accountable because so many people have a piece of the decisionmaking process. If we can simplify it, increase accountability, I think it will be significant steps in the right direction.”
SHINN: Well, good morning. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations, also known as Ice Station Zebra. Thanks for coming through the cold for a conversation on national security and reform. And we're honored to have Congressman Mac Thornberry with us. Your timing is great. The president has submitted his budget proposal to Congress. He's also submitted an Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Congress. And, so, we have with us, arguably, the most authoritative voice in Congress on both issues, so I think you'll enjoy hearing the chairman's remarks on both of these big public policy questions.
He has a distinguished career, as you know. I mean, we're lucky actually to have him in this job, since not only is he the chairman of the HASC, as it's known inside the beltway. But he also served on the Intelligence Committee, and on the Budget Committee, which is an important part of this puzzle. And, in fact, the congressman agreed to in—in his conversation this morning to enlighten us a bit on this complicated budgetary process that he has to manage, as well as the actual numbers themselves.
So, my name is Jim Shinn, and my marching orders for this morning is—are—to engage the congressman in a couple of questions for about thirty minutes. Then turn to the members for—for your questions and comments. And I can tell, since they sent me the list of attendees last night, that you have drawn a particularly knowledgeable and well-informed group, and I think you'll enjoy the dialogue.
So I thought maybe we would ask your views in two general areas, both of which your committee has—has considerable purview over. The first is the big question of—of—of arming, equipping and training the armed forces themselves, right? That's the principal—the principal, but not the sole responsibility of oversight for your committee.
And the second question is—is your views on the use of force, both for deterrence and for the actual conduct of—of combat operations. And, again, Congressman Thornberry's committee, and he personally has a—a considerable role in shaping that on—on both counts. So maybe the first—the first question would be in terms of the—the budget itself, what—what do you make of this $580 billion submission? Particularly given the budget caps, which are still in effect.
THORNBERRY: It—it's—it's complex, and—and—and actually the next two weeks, I think, are going to be very important for—for us in the house, in sorting through how we try to have enough budgetary resources for our military, and still—still deal with the Budget Control Act and its aftermath.
And I—you all probably don't want to go back through the whole history of this, but—but just briefly, if you'll remember, in 2011, Congress passed, the president signed this thing called the Budget Control Act, which reduced spending a certain amount, and then it set up a super committee to try to reform entitlements to reduce spending another amount. And as a forcing function, if there was not some sort of mandatory spending or entitlement reform, there would be these automatic cuts to the discretionary side of the budget, half from defense, half from non-defense spending.
So the super committee failed, and defense spending, in real terms, has been cut 21 percent since 2010. So, that's what's happened. Now, the two thirds of the budget that is mandatory spending has not been touched. The domestic discretionary has been cut, and defense, as I mentioned, has gone down 21 percent. So, but that's the current law. So, unless you change that current law, the—the amount of money we have, and—and it's hard to compare apples and apples if you look at the 050 budget account, the current spending for defense would be $523 billion, which is about flat with last year.
And—and so unless we find a way to change the law, and that means get the president to sign something, we're going to be at—at that level. And all the military advisors say that is at least $40 billion too little. Again, I won't go on too long about this, but so, some of my colleagues say, well, military's gotten by OK the past couple years. We can continue to get by with it. Part of what's happened is they have deferred training. They have deferred maintenance. They have bought fewer things. So, rather than buy twenty airplanes at the most efficient rate this year, we'll buy fifteen. And push off those purchases to future years, which means they're going to be more expensive and we don't—we don't get them as—as quickly.
SHINN: So, does this mean that—that—that no matter what budget your committee comes out with, if they don't change the budget caps, then it automatically drops back down to...
SHINN:...the magic number. I think it's $499...
THORNBERRY: Yes, yes. That is true. Unless there is a new law signed whatever we pass it automatically goes back down to that lower level. And it's—and it's a multistage process. So, you pass a budget resolution, then you have an authorization bill, which is separate, and then appropriation bills. So, you can think you're doing something in the budget, but unless you work it all the way through the process, you're not going to actually have the increased number of bullets, guns, or whatever it is you're buying get to—get to the troops.
And—and, of course, we deal with this budget, and I know we'll talk about this in a second, in a world with more complex threats probably than we have ever faced, at least as far as the testimony that we've gotten in the committee goes. So, it's—it's a pretty scary time to continue to be drawing down on the capabilities that our country has available to it.
SHINN: So, as I understand it, you have to manage both the—both the mathematics of the budget, on the one hand, that complicated process. But you also have to manage this sort of analytical process of trying to figure out, well, how much is enough? And in fact I—I was watching a—a YouTube clip of hearings he held recently. And one of his members was complaining, somewhat plaintively, that, you know, this budget's just so big, and it's so complicated that unless you're doing this for a long time, it's difficult to see if we, the committee, are actually providing oversight on whether the—whether the components of the budget, and the size of the budget actually meet national security needs of this country in your judgment.
And the way it was done conventionally was that you'd look at the—the QDR, right? The Quadrennial Defense Review that said, here are the big risks. And then you look at the budget, and you'd compare the two. And the delta, the difference between those, was how much national security risk you were taking if you made the budgetary choices that you made. How do you—how do you approach that process? And how much risk, in your view, is—is this country exposed to if we forward and hit the budget caps, and it drops back down to this blunt instrument of sequestration?
THORNBERRY: Yes. A lot is—is—is the short answer. Well, you know, if—if you looked at this logically, you would figure—you would look at the threats, you would develop a strategy, and then resource the strategy. I suspect that's what most people in business would try to do. We don't do that in the federal government. And, you know, it's a fair argument to say how much security is enough? It's kind of like how much health care is enough.
Well, you know, it's hard to put a quantifiable limit on it. But—but we don't even, I think, make a—a decent effort at calculating risk. More often, in recent years, the Quadrennial Defense Review has been a slick, glossy publication that justifies how much money an administration wants to spend. And—and so, then we get an outside group of experts. And this year, it was the National Defense Panel, former secretaries of defense, military folks who—who look at the threats and—and come up with an amount they think is appropriate.
But—but, unfortunately, we're pretty much governed by what the political budget maneuverings are, and then our job is to try to make the best use of whatever figure comes out of that messy, non-strategic process. And—and—and that's really the way it works.
SHINN: So, the big—the big book that you get from the Pentagon is just the starting point, right? So, you're—you and your committee get to weigh in systematically on the big decisions regarding force size, force structure, where they're deployed, what kind of weapons systems they use, and how much they're paid. What—what—in your view, what are the big—what are the really big decisions that your committee's going to have to make? Particularly with regard to some of the defense reform hot buttons, like military compensation, Tri-Care, even base closure.
THORNBERRY: If I can back up just one step, because—because you're exactly right. The way it has traditionally worked is, the president sends up a budget to Congress. We hold a hearing with the secretary of defense to explain the budget, and then we have the secretary of the army, the secretary of the navy, the secretary of the air force, all the combatant commanders come up, and basically support the president's budget. We're not doing that this year. We're having at least two months of hearings, basically on the threats. On the challenges that we face. And then we're going to have the secretary of defense at the end of that process come and explain to us how the president's budget proposal does or does not meet all of those threats that—and challenges that we've been hearing about for two months. So, for the first time, at least in my twenty years, we are upending the process, and trying to gain a better understanding of the strategic environment in which we operate before we jump right in to the dollars and cents for this, that and—and the other thing.
Now, it's unsettled the Pentagon a little bit. It's unsettled the—the committee staff a little bit. But—but, I think, at least given all of the challenges we face, it—it makes some sense. Among the—the—the big decisions we have are a commission of several—a few weeks ago recommended changes in military retirement and benefits. So, we've got to see what we're going to do with that, and health care, just like everybody else is a major component of that. We have a major reform effort on acquisition, both the goods and services, that wer'e working with the Pentagon on. We're not going to fix it, but we're going to try to make some improvements, and then keep—keep after it.
If we're down at the sequester level, then there are going to have to be some programmatic decisions, weapon systems and other things, that we just do not have the money to—to pay for. And, you know, I worry a little bit. The military says that we're—as I mentioned, sequester is about $40 billion lower than the lower ragged edge of what it takes to defend the country.
So, we're going to be down there, at a level where there will be substantially increased risk. It's going to be hard to quantify it. It's going to be hard to say, OK, we have greater risk here and here, at the expense of this. It's—it's, you know, when you're dealing with these things, it's—it's—it's hard to make it concrete, and, yet, we see every day from the—the lack of training, the lack of maintenance, the—the—the things that have already happened under sequestration, it's having a real impact on our military.
We—we—we are the—the Pentagon is sending pink slips to majors and captains who have combat experience. Think of the investment the country has in these folks, but as we downsize, reduce the number of people especially in the Army and Marine Corps, we're saying even if you want to stay, you can't stay. You got to go. And—and so it's—that's the sort of thing that—that is happening that doesn't seem to me to be very smart.
SHINN: So, this is—this is risk management of a particularly complicated kind?
SHINN: Most people in this room...
SHINN:...I think probably engage in some kind of risk management. But the consequences of failure aren't usually as—as—as serious as they are for a national security risk failure. What do you see as the biggest risks posed? By this—by this delta?
THORNBERRY: I—I think the challenge of the times we live in is that, at least since the end of World War II, and maybe ever, we have never faced this wide array of complex threats in a very volatile world that moves so quickly. So, that's why it's so hard to pin down. Is it terrorism? Is it cyberattack? Is it Russia's aggression? Or the Chinese? Or—or the North Korean new systems? Or the Iranian missiles and nuclear program? Or is it some disease that, you know, Ebola intentionally induced, that—that spreads like wildfire? I—I think it's—it's impossible to say. And—and so, I realize many folks deal with risk management. I think this more like gambling, because it's—it's more unpredictable. You don't know where the threat is going to be, and you're taking—you're gambling that you'll have the right capability in the right place, at the right time, and be smart enough to use it.
SHINN: I think Wall Street risk management may, at times, be more like than gambling than—than we think. But—but the—but the process of trying to assess the risks is --is the same. So, you going to—you going to broadcast these hearings?
SHINN: As the...
THORNBERRY: Sure. Sure. Yes. And—and we've already started. For example, this week we've got a public hearing on what's happening in Ukraine, and especially the Russian tactics, unconventional tactics, of taking people out of their uniforms, subversion of the government, and so forth. Because I—I think while we—most of us understand marching in uniform, in formation, across national borders what Putin, and some extent the Chinese and others are doing, is a—are different forms of warfare that we are not as well suited to dealing with. So, we've got that hearing this week. We also have a hearing on the Authorization of the Use of Military Force against ISIS.
SHINN: Let me—let me ask you about the AUMF. There's an acronym for everything, I learned in the Pentagon. That's—that's a big one, AUMF. But the—I mean, Ice Station Zebra actually, I imagine some people have seen. Some of us are old enough to remember the Cold War. I have to remember—remind my students that there was a time when the Russians were—were not our allies. And that was filmed in 1968, right?
But I bet if a year ago, somebody had suggested to you that one of the biggest military threats was dealing with a Russian backed insurgency somewhere in Eastern Europe, you probably would have thrown them back on to Independence Avenue. What do you—what do you make of this—of the president's proposal for the Authorization of Use of Military Force? Which is really, as I understand it, focused on ISIL, rather than the Russians, per se.
Why, insofar as you can infer strategy on the part of the West Wing, why this bill? And why now?
THORNBERRY: I'm not good at figuring out why they do things. Particularly the 'why now' part. We've been bombing in Iraq and Syria since at least September, and we have been asking the president to submit to us, and a language to authorize the use of military force there, since then or before. And—and why now, I don't know. But, I guess my view is, regardless of the reason, the Constitution puts on Congress the responsibility to declare war, and a lesser subset of that is to authorize the use of military force. And I think we need to do our job, and—and—and grapple with this, and—and vote on it.
The second thing I feel very strongly about, is when we send men and women of the military out to do a mission, they need to know that the country backs them. That they have the full protection, under the Constitution, for the missions that they engage—are engaged in, and that it's not just a president, or an administration, but it's the country that has authorized and supports what they're doing.
So, in addition to the constitutional argument, I think they deserve to have the Congress authorize the—the broad parameters of what they're sent to do. And, then, of course, the president, as—as commander in chief tactically tells them how to do that.
I've got qualms about the language the president sent up. As you all may know, it—it includes a number of conditions. It does not authorize enduring, offensive, ground combat operations. I worry that we are asking our pilots, or our people on the ground to have a lawyer by your side, to figure out whether that's enduring or not, or it's offensive or not, or whether it's ground combat or not.
And—and we are in this kind of ironic situation where I—where many Republicans want to give the president broader authority, many Democrats want to give him—constrain him further. And—and so how is this going to come out? I don't know. That's part of the reason we have hearings and try to dig deeper, and think about and understand these things. As I mentioned, the first one in our committee is—is—is this week. But I think it's important.
SHINN: Some of his critics have said this is likely to be another case where political tactics bleed into a strategic blender. The analogy that they draw is the president's attempt square the circle and approve a surge into Afghanistan, but to impose a time limit, in effect telling the Taliban, "if you hang on long enough, we're going to—we're going to retreat."
Some say that in his attempt to—to square the circle between his base and the fact that the Republicans control both houses, that he's setting himself up for another strategic bind, another strategic error at some point down the road.
And who knows how ISIL is going to turn out?
THORNBERRY: Those who are even a bit more cynical believe that the—that this is not going to go very well for quite awhile, and the president is looking to share responsibility slash blame with the Congress so that the—he and his party are not forced to bear the full weight of the strategic blunder that has become—has come in part from his premature withdrawal from Iraq and the lack of an effective strategy to—to counter ISIS.
I don't know. What I do know is that I think this is the most sophisticated, best equipped, best trained terrorist organization we've faced.
And my opinion is, the momentum, they still have the momentum. It's still growing. And so it must be confronted. It is not up to us alone to confront them. As a matter of fact, we've—it is important for Sunnis to be in the forefront of this. But I absolutely believe that the other nations in the region are not going to step up to the plate if they have doubts about whether we're right with them and behind them.
And these doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally permeates their decisions on—on what actions to take as well as the—the things involving Russia, China, and around the world.
SHINN: I mean, the tough question you'd want to ask, I suppose, would be, since you get both documents from the White House, is are the components and size of the defense budget that he just—he just gave you consistent with the outlines for the use of military force, particularly against ISIL?
Another way of saying, will the military have the capability and the size required to exercise the force he's proposing to use in the region where he's proposing to use it?
THORNBERRY: Yeah, I guess the key though, phrase that you used there is "the force he is proposing to use", and that gets back to is there a strategy to really push back on—on these folks, or is this a kind of a, more of a 'contain as best as we can for awhile and hope that they collapse on themselves'? I mean, if you step back, in trying to understand the administration's approach, step one is to try to get the Iraqi military back on their feet so that there can be some effective force other than the Kurds to push back inside Iraq.
Now, to do that, you've got to get the Iraqi government to regain some of the trust of the Sunnis and—and we don't see much sign of that so far, and that's the easy part. You know, the harder part is how do you get a force inside Syria to push back.
So, we're about to start training a small number of people, but even the military folks doing the training say that the goal here is over the next few years to enable them to be better able to defend themselves, not some sort of offensive action against—against ISIS.
So, back to your point, I think that's right ideally. But—but you've got to have some sort of idea of what sort of forces, what sort of strategy you want to employ before you know whether it's resourced appropriately.
And—and one of the questions I'm going to have in these hearings is, okay, you're asking us to authorize use of military force. What is your strategy for success? Because I'm not sure we've heard it so far.
SHINN: Think we'll have one last question, then we'll turn to the—turn to the members.
There's another puzzle here, which is, as you said, where the resources are commensurate with strategy. What do you make of the so-called Asia pivot, and do you see either an action so far by DoD or by statements of—of strategy that you've perceived from your various testimonies from the Pentagon, that the Asia pivot is real? Are there changes in force structure commensurate with that, or is this political rhetoric?
THORNBERRY: I don't see much evidence that it's real. If you're—when you pivot, you turn away from something towards something else. I don't know of anybody who disagrees with the basic point that East Asia is a—is a region of increasing importance to the world. And it will continue to grow in importance.
But—but this idea that you turn away from something else, I think, basically was a way to describe disengagement from the Middle East, and the Middle East has a way of grabbing you and pulling you back in as—as we have witnessed.
So, that's why I think that the administration started backtracking from this idea of a—of a pivot, because it—it clearly cannot happen, given the way the world works.
I do worry however, about—back to the budget for just a second, what that budget entails just to be simple on something, is fewer ships.
Well, that's a big deal for Asia, where our presence is a key component of reassuring allies and persuading neutrals that we're going to be there, that it's OK to work with the United States in the face of an increasingly aggressive, expanding China.
And so, numbers of ships in Asia matters. And in other parts of the world, too. And so I guess I would have some criticisms of the president on—on pivots and so forth and the perception that the U.S. is in withdrawal mode around the world.
But I also believe that the budgets we pass, in addition to the consequences of how much you can buy with that amount of money, also send a signal to the world about the United States more broadly and whether we intend to continue to be engaged or whether the country is in withdrawal mode. And—and you know, I think that's something that a lot of people, friend, foe and neutrals, are watching at this time, as they look at the United States.
SHINN: Well, I think you're going to have a lot of people watching your—watching your hearings and your deliberations on this.
Let's—let's turn if we can to—to you, to the members for your comments and questions.
I would oblige to say this is on the record, of course, and just raise your hand. When you do, just please identify yourself by name, your affiliation if you want to, and then please be as concise as you can.
QUESTION: Sir, may name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. I've been in the U.S. government twice in the national security area.
I—I certainly applaud what you've said, congressman, about the situation with ISIS, and I'm a registered Democrat. But, I wonder if we flesh it a little bit more. What can you say about whether the likelihood, or how the—that your committee might feel about adding forward air controllers, or advisors at the battalion level that's—that hasn't been done so far?
THORNBERRY: Yes, I—I think the administration would argue that that would be permitted under this authorization. Again, the—there's two, well, three real conditions on it. One, as I mentioned, is enduring offensive ground combat operations. That is not authorized.
There is a time limit of three years, and then there is a definition of who you can go after, ISIS, and affiliated forces. Just as a brief side note, the administration does not want to change the 2001 AUMF, which is directed towards Al-Qaeda. So, you've got—you—you do have Al-Qaeda affiliates side by side with ISIS inside Syria, and, yet, under the administration's proposal they can do more against the Al-Qaeda affiliates than they can do against ISIS, even though they're side by side in the same country. I've got some questions about that.
But, I think it's still a question for the president: do you put forward ground controllers out there? Do you put intelligence collection—collectors out there? If we're training the Iraqi military, do you allow those advisors to go into the field with them? Which has been a key factor in success in training efforts in the past. You know, the president would decide whether that is permitted or not. I think all of those things would be permitted under his draft AUMF proposal, but—but still doesn't mean automatically that it would happen.
SHINN: Yes, ma'am?
QUESTION: Bhakti Mirchandani. I work at One William Street, which is a hedge fund. I read some of your comments talking about how investing in the military, and making military efforts strong, and security strong goes well beyond investing in combat capabilities. With the budget as constrained as—as it is, and with the president's recent comments about investing in communities to enhance security, what are your thoughts on expanding enterprise funds beyond Tunisia and Egypt, to bolster security? Government investments in things like U.S. companies that are focused on cybersecurity. So, government investments that would eventually, ideally, pay back. Do you think that's an attractive use of the funds in this constrained environment?
THORNBERRY: Generally, yes. So, for example, a—a couple weeks ago, I was in Tunisia, and I—I think it makes a lot of sense for us to help, encourage, reward a country that is a Muslim country, where the Arab Spring started, that just swore in their first democratically elected government. And—and—and so, we ought to look for ways to work with people who are on our side, in part to help allay these concerns that the United States is not a reliable friend or ally. And—and I think we have to be smart about it, and, you know, some of the various programs we've had over the years have—may have built resentment as much as strengthened those bonds of friendship.
So, we need to be smart. You know, personally, I've always been a—a fan of the Millennium Challenge Account idea, where we encourage reforms, like legal reforms that benefit the people, in exchange for some—some of our assistance.
Last point I would make is I—I think it—there is a very important role for various kinds of economic and—and non-military assistance for—for a variety of these countries. At the same time, I strongly believe there is no substitute for U.S. military strength. You know, those programs, the economic and development sorts of programs, are not going to be effective if—if you don't have security.
And—and I think some of the writing and thinking on this topic, that security has to come first, when we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, is—is right on the money. That doesn't mean we have to do everything, but the perception of a weakened, or withdrawing United States leads other players in to fill the void, and it destabilizes everything, and makes it really hard for any of the economic or development help to—to pay dividends.
SHINN: Burt (ph), yes?
QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, thank you for coming. My questions are sort of conceptual rather than operational. And you can answer them in one. But, first I have difficulties in the House of Representatives collectively deciding whether you should have forward air controllers or not. It doesn't seem to me that a legislative body is the best place to make decisions of that kind. So, I wonder, if that—if the house isn't overreaching in terms of its capabilities?
SHINN: Burt (ph), how about we do one question at a time?
THORNBERRY: No, I completely agree with you. And—and I know of no scenario where the house would dictate in legislation, there should or should not be forward air controllers. Back to, I think, where—where we started today, the—the fundamental job of the Congress is to build the military capability. It is up to the commander in chief on how to use it. Now, it is also fair for us, as an independent branch of government, to make comments. And even criticism if the commander in chief is not using that capability in as smart a way.
But, I completely agree that we cannot micromanage the battle field, which is part of the reason I personally have concerns about these conditions on the AUMF, about what's offensive and what's not. Well, it kind of depends, you know, on the circumstances. So, I—I think we have to avoid, while it's fair to comment, we have to avoid putting in legislation in law, overly restrictive constraints on any president. So, I'm—yes.
QUESTION: Dee Smith, Strategic Insight Group and Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations. A question on a budgetary matter. In operations other than war, where does the money come from? For example, the U.S. military deployment in West Africa for the Ebola crisis? Was that—did that come out of the defense budget, or did it come from some other source?
THORNBERRY: It—it came out of the defense budget. The president asked for, I believe, a—a, what we used to call supplementals, some extra funding to cover the costs of a particular operation or deployment and, but it gets charged, basically, against the defense budget. And—and maybe more detail than you want to know, but there are some people who say that it's OK if we go ahead and fund the military at the lower sequestration level, we'll just make up for it with these supplementals, or what's called OCO, Overseas Contingency Accounts. There's a number of problems with that theory, but that is one of the discussion items going around Washington now. That even if we shortchange it over here, we'll make up for it over here.
SHINN: Yes, that's—that's sort of important vocabulary. It's called OCOA, so-called war funding. That's what it's usually referred to in the—in the press, and that's, I think, about $50 billion...
THORNBERRY: It's at sixty something this year. It's fifty for next year's request. Yes.
SHINN: And there's—there's I think a mistaken assumption that you could just slip stuff into OCOA and it won't get sequestered, but that's not true, right?
THORNBERRY: That's not true, and it's also not true that we can automatically pass an increase in the—in that budget. As a matter of fact, a couple years ago, we had a combination of Republicans and Democrats vote to significantly reduce that on the house floor. So, the idea that you can automatically make up for deficiencies with this war fund, you know, operational funding is—is false, I think.
SHINN: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Mr. Li, from People's Daily. Just one or two days ago I heard that the U.S. will postpone the withdrawal from Afghanistan, right? So, does it mean that U.S. is worrying that Taliban will have kind of combination with I.S.? Or even if U.S. doesn't think that Taliban is a terrorist group?
THORNBERRY: Well, I'll set the 'whether the Taliban is a terrorist group' aside for just a second. I was in a meeting with the—the new president of Afghanistan a few weeks ago, and he strongly suggested to us that it would be beneficial to him if we did not withdraw our troops from Afghanistan on the pace that the president had announced. Not that there's a particular security worry, but as—as we've seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a variety of places, as we try to train and build up security forces, it takes some time. And if you leave too early, then—then you can really leave a problem.
And—and—and so, his request is, as I understand it, is—is to basically maintain current levels for the rest of this year in Afghanistan, to give our folks more time to work with his, gather intelligence, and the sorts of things that we are helping them with. Not in a combat role. And he thinks at the end of that year that he will be in a much better position to protect his own security. And, remember, that's the goal. It's to help these folks be able to take care of their own security needs. And—and so, I think it makes sense. I don't know that a decision has been made. I—I read the—the press reports that you indicate. I think Secretary Carter's been talking about that on his trip there. But it certainly makes sense to me.
SHINN: Maybe—John, turn your—turn your mike on please?
QUESTION: John Biggs, NYU Stern School. I teach a course on risk management, and what you face is beyond anything we can talk to our students about. That's why I'm impressed. But it seems that we've had a steady withdrawal on budgets from Western European countries over the years, military budgets, relying heavily on big spending from us. Are we making clear to them that the Russian threat can't be entirely financed by increased money coming from the U.S.? Are there—is there any sign that they're stepping up to the plate, and providing more money for—for defense?
THORNBERRY: Oh, there's a few little glimmers of hope that some of them are waking up to the challenges that are in their own neighborhood. But—but not nearly enough. And I, you know, I—I think that—that the administration makes that point clear. Certainly, when we have legislative interactions.
You know, for example, at the Munich Security Conference a couple weeks ago, that was made very clear to—to every European country that—that we had the opportunity to meet with. But we need to keep pushing, because, you know, they're—they're nowhere near. Well, I think there's only two or three countries that meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold that NATO has—has—has set. And—and some of them, particularly the wealthier ones, are so far below that, you just think, good heavens.
SHINN: That's a really good question. Because the whole—this whole sort of alliance management issue is, I think, one of the top—it usually is—one of the top five issues in the QDR, and it's certainly, I think, going to be an issue as you—as you sift through the—through the budget proposal. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Scott Helfstein, BNY Mellon. Thank you for your comments this morning, congressman. From your perspective, militarily, diplomatically, what do you think the next steps with Russia are?
THORNBERRY: I think the next step needs to be to provide the Ukrainians more assistance with which to defend themselves. So, the ranking Democrat on our committee, Adam Smith from Washington, and I have jointly introduced legislation that would require defensive, lethal assistance be provided to the Ukrainians. And what we're talking about is the sort of things that can stop a tank. Or an armored car. Secure communications, so the Russians aren't listening to everything they say. You know, night-vision goggles, and—and so forth.
Now, the German argument back is, well, if you—we give those sorts of weapons to the Ukrainians, Putin will just increase the ante, and so you'll have escalation and more people will die. I—I guess my answers to that are, number one, any people deserve the right to defend themselves, and for us to make the decision that, oh, they can't win, so we're not going to give them anything, or any means with which to defend themselves is pretty arrogant and—and I think mistaken on our part.
Secondly, I'm of the view that Putin will continue to push forward until he has—he meets some resistance or pays some price. And—and if you're in the Baltics or in other Eastern European sort of countries, you're watching this very closely. Now, I can't, you know, tell you that if we give certain things to Ukrainians, Putin will back off. I'm not—I'm not saying that, but I am saying that he's denying that he even has Russian troops in Ukraine. You know, it's he's put—'who me? I don't know anything about it'. These are just patriotic Ukrainians who are rising up against their evil government. There has to be some increased price that—that he pays, and—and—and I think the Ukrainians are willing to—to take some of that on.
So, I think that's the next step. And—and—and then after that, I think a reassurance mission for other countries in the Baltics and Eastern European is important. Whether it's—it's—and we do some rotational things there now, but a greater presence of NATO, and especially the United States would—would be beneficial.
SHINN: Did—will your bill pass? And what do you think this administration will do? With your offer to...?
THORNBERRY: Yes, I—I don't know what they'll do. I think it would have overwhelming bipartisan support. As—as I have talked with Republicans and Democrats in the house and the senate, there is—there is very little resistance to the idea that we should provide these sorts of—of—of equipment and weapons to the Ukrainians. So, I think it would pass overwhelmingly. I don't know what the administration would do. They say they're still looking at it and studying it, but meanwhile Putin presses on.
SHINN: Yes, sir? The gentleman with the spotted tie. Right there.
QUESTION: Steve Rodriguez, I work in venture capital here in New York. And I actually heard your remarks at the Reagan National Security Forum, I think that's what it was called.
QUESTION: Which were very good. Given that the part of the topic, at least, today is defense reform, I'd be curious to get your thoughts. Obviously, we have Secretary Kendall working now, and Carter in place. Given that they have two years, roughly, give or take, actually less, in office, and they have a number of top-down initiatives that they're currently pushing, that—that being from OSD itself, what's your expectation in terms of the efficacy of their—their abilities to reform their own institution?
THORNBERRY: I'm—I'm of the view that we have a unique opportunity right now. With Undersecretary Kendall, and—and what he has started, and his willingness to work with us. With Secretary Carter and his background in these areas. Senator McCain chairing the senate committee and—and our house committee's going to make a major push on this.
So, I think we have a unique opportunity to make some of the changes that need to be made in the way the—the—the Pentagon operates. I don't think we need to try to solve everything in—in a two year period, or in a single bound. Usually 2,000 page bills that try to fix all the problems don't work out very well. But, I think we can make a start.
So, for example, Secretary Kendall has sent over to us a series of legislative proposals to simplify and thin out laws and regulations. And—and we are going to take a really hard look at—at what he has asked us to do, and—and maybe add some to it, and—and get—get his views on that. So, I think there's a real opportunity for progress here. The most frequent reaction I get is eye rolling. Yes, you know, people saying oh, we've heard that before. What makes you think you can really, really do that? Well, I think that's not an excuse not to make an effort. I think we need to, first, be like the physicians and do no harm.
In other words, what Congress often has done in the past is add new layers of oversight or bureaucracy, and—and we don't want to do that. We want to thin it down, to simplify it, so there can be accountability for the decisions that are made. Part of the problem now is if a program goes seriously off track, it's hard to know who to hold accountable because so many people have a piece of the decisionmaking process. If we can simplify it, increase accountability, I—I think it will be significant steps in the right direction.
The last point I'd make is the Pentagon spends more money procuring services than it does weapons and equipment. And—and—and part of what we need to do in Congress is have better oversight of that. Because we tend to gravitate to the bright shiny objects, you know, the planes and the ships, and—and this other stuff, that's kind of more nebulous, and—and not quite as sexy, we tend to not even pay much attention to.
So, this is not just about Pentagon laws and regulations. This is also about how we conduct oversight. The questions we ask. And—and so we're going to try to improve, and the number of reports we require, we're going to try to improve our end of this process, too, and as—at least as long as I'm in this job, we're going to keep working each year to try to make it better.
SHINN: Which of the hard proposals for reform are you likely to encourage the most?
THORNBERRY: Well, any time—the most important element of our defense—of our country's defense are our people. And so any time you start reforming programs that deal with people, then it is subject to a lot of questions and pushback. But, it—you also want to be sure you understand the unintended consequences. Because if we do something dumb, and are not able to continue to attract and retain the top quality people we need, then we will have—have—have crippled the defenses of the United States in a way that takes years to recover from.
So, we'll see what we are able to do of the recommendations that this personnel commission has given us. Some of them involve health care, and everybody here knows how complicated it is to try to reform health care. Some of them involve a different retirement system for new people coming in. In other words, you keep—we keep our commitments to the people who are already in the military, but for the people signing up, they have more of a 401K defined contribution plan rather than a—a defined benefit plan that you only get after twenty years, by the way. So, 83 percent of the people who serve in the military get no retirement whatsoever, because they don't last the twenty years. Maybe that's not the smartest way to compete with Google for cyber talent in—in the future. So—so...
...you know, that—that some of, but I think the people is the most critical—critical element.
SHINN: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: This is a—Bruce Gelb, chairman of the Council of American Ambassadors. This is a, I think, a relatively simple question, but for me a very complicated one. What I keep seeing in the articles that I read is that our president, who has one of the lowest ratings among the American people in terms of confidence in his behavior and actions that we've had in a long, long time. The impression I have is that he can do what he damn well pleases, if he wants to do anything on any one of these fronts that you're talking about without the—the authorization of the—the Congress or anyone else. Is that a fact?
THORNBERRY: You're right. It's a hard question.
He—he is. And I'm sure we don't want to get into a variety of other issues where the president has broken new ground in deciding what laws he chooses to enforce, and what laws he chooses to change. But, it is, as I mentioned a while ago, we have been bombing in Iraq and Syria since August, September, and only now—and—and for the last six months he has argued I don't need an authorization—more authorization to do this. Everything I'm doing is covered under the 2001 authorization. And then, back to the why now question, all of a sudden it—it comes up and says, OK, I really want you all to—to authorize this. I don't know.
I can't make sense of all that from a constitutional standpoint, but what does weigh on me, as I mentioned, is if we're going to send men and women out to perform dangerous missions, they deserve to have the full protection of the Constitution, and they deserve to know that the country's government, and thus the country's people, support what they're doing. I think we owe it to them, even if we cannot understand how the president views his authority, or if he thinks there's any restrictions on his authority. I still think we owe to those people out on the front lines.
SHINN: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: It's Bob Katz from Goldman Sachs. I'm curious how you would score congressional oversight in the armed services area over your time on the committees. The impression from outside is that domestic programs receive kind of granular oversight of the quality and effectiveness, and that the military side it's all about a dollar number, and the experts inside kind of tell Congress, and us, or decide what they need to do when you either fund it or not. But over the time you've been there, has the quality, the granularity or however you want to describe it, of oversight changed?
THORNBERRY: I—I think it's varied. You know, I—I think it's been up and down. There have been times when it was only because of congressional oversight and advocacy that, for example, up- armored humvees were—were brought into Iraq, to make a real difference in saving lives of—of our folks. So, we made a real difference on something that—that was really important at—at the time.
I mentioned, I think we largely—we don't pay as much attention to the—a lot of the—the less than sexy elements of the department budget, like contracting for services, and other things. Now, you know, this might be an opportune time if I wanted to, to whine about out committee budget. You know, we've got like fifty people who oversee, you know, $500, $600 billion...
THORNBERRY:...well, now, I, you know, but—but—but, here's I had—I have this view. I—I think there are some people in the Pentagon who like us to get embroiled down in the weeds on kind of some of the—the smaller issues that may be important to somebody, but if—if you're down in the weeds all the time, it's pretty hard to look up and see the bigger picture. And what the Constitution puts on our shoulders is this broader picture. So, it's important to be able to dig down on particular systems, and—and understand what's happening, but it is even more important for us to kind of have this—this bigger picture of where we're heading.
What are the—one of the—one of the story that stuck in my mind is when—when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense after we won the first Persian Gulf war, the first call he made was to President Reagan to thank him for the defense items that were purchased and—and acquired during the Reagan years, because that's what they had to fight the—the first gulf war with. So, part of our job in Congress to make the decisions in building the force that the next president, and the next president, will have available to him or her, to—to—to defend the country. And—and I think it's really important for us to—to keep in mind that bigger, longer view and if I had to give us a grade on how well we've done that over the years, it's pretty poor. We get—we get down into the weeds too much, and—and fail to have that broader and longer view. And so I hope that we can improve that.
SHINN: Yes, that's true that risk management has a forward, temporal component to it that we—we ignore at our peril.
Questions? Burt (ph), you have another bite at the apple. But a question, please.
QUESTION: When Mr. Gates was secretary of defense, he spent his life in CIA, at one point he remarked that he has more musicians on the payroll than the secretary of defense—secretary of state—has trained negotiators to settle things. And his successor said I've got more lawyers than the defense department than the secretary of state has to negotiate conclusions to these problems which we are bombing. Are you prepared to say on the record you'd like to see 10 percent of the defense budget be transferred to the state department so that we can settle some of these problems, which we're just bombing?
I—I spent a year at the state department. I appreciate what they do. But going back to the conversation we had a few minutes ago, diplomacy is not going to work without a strong, credible U.S. military. Now, I am willing to cut 10, maybe 20 percent of of the bureaucratic over structure in the Pentagon, and one of our reform efforts will be to try to reduce overhead, not just at the Pentagon, but at some of the combatant commands, as well.
A fair number of people coming out of even the Obama administration are saying it has grown way too big. It's way too cumbersome. And slows down decisionmaking, because of all of those layers. So, back to my point about simplifying and thinning out, partly to save money, partly to help the Pentagon be more agile in—in making decisions. I think that is a very good priority. And—and it is certainly something we want to pursue.
I think the state department ought to be adequately funded. We just have for—we—remember who we sent to deal with Ebola, it—it was the military. So, they're the ones that we send to deal with problems that—that come up. State department does not have a capability to go deal with that, or a variety of other things.
SHINN: Well, thank you very much. One of the rules is, we end on time. And, I know you're headed for a train back—back from Ice Station Zebra to Washington D.C., also locked in snow and ice. So, please join me in thanking the chairman.