Just prior to the primary election season, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) spent some time with inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen to focus attention on the need for American leadership in an increasingly fragmented world.
inFOCUS: In describing your visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp, you spoke about how the “place is one of pure evil.” President Bush also used the term in his “Axis of Evil” threesome: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Do you believe “evil” as an absolute still exists today? Where? What makes it evil? And what can and should the United States do about it?
ERIC CANTOR: Evil probably will always exist and it is important for a superpower like the U.S. to be willing to confront it, and to be honest when we see it. Whether we see it in brutal regimes such as North Korea and Iran, or in Syrian dictator Bashar Asad’s war against his own people in Syria, it is not just governments, it includes terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, or the Taliban. We in the U.S. government and the American people need to understand and confront evil. And the question has to be if not the U.S., then who is going to do it? That’s why I’m so committed to making sure that the U.S. doesn’t stop fighting this war.
We need to be honest about it, and contrary to what the president likes to say, the tide of war is not receding, the back of al-Qaeda has not been broken, and we have not had—as Americans—the luxury of ignoring these extant and gathering threats. I also believe strongly that cutting defense expenditures too deeply is going to be a dangerous thing. The decisions that we make now will obviously determine the military options that America has in its inventory as we go forward. I also strongly believe that the Commander in Chief of our country, our nation, has to take on a more global position when it comes to rallying allies in defense against these looming threats. We can’t do it alone, we shouldn’t have to do it alone, but we have to lead in order for it to happen. And I think we really need to be more confident in terms of leadership—something that’s been lacking of late.
iF: Do you believe the American people are looking for leadership that explains why it is important to engage in battles that may not be popular, but may be important, rather than just having the president say, in essence, “Oh, you want out? We’ll get out.”? How far do you think a President can go to bring the public to his way of thinking on foreign affairs?
EC: I think not only do we have to make a good case to the American people and our allies, but we need to be able to stand behind our word as well. I’ve been very concerned about the aftermath of what happened in Syria; a red line on the use of chemical weapons was drawn by our president. The allies—with the support of Congress—were ready to impose consequences if the president’s red line was crossed by Bashar Asad. But the world, our allies and our foes, then witnessed America receding from the president’s word and his commitments. So yes, we can convince our European allies to go along, it just takes strong principled leadership and definitive actions so that they know that America means business and that we can be relied upon.
iF: One school of political thought says, “You make peace (accommodation) with your enemies, not your friends.” That would suggest the U.S. find accommodation with Russia, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, (possibly) Hamas and Hezbollah, while also not frightening our traditional allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Do you believe the U.S. can bring Iran and Russia, et al, into a more accommodating position in the world?
EC: I don’t believe the U.S. can bring Iran and Russia into a more accommodating position in the world. And as far as Asad, or Hezbollah, or Hamas, it is clear right now that these are Mr. Putin’s allies and he believes this is his opportunity to affect the outcome in the Middle East and Central Asia. I believe we need to re-instill the notion that there is no looming withdrawal of American interest in foreign policy so that, frankly, the Iranians get the message that we are willing to take a hard line.
If we did that I think we have a much better prospect for an Iranian response, much more in line with what we’d hoped than what’s going on. I’m not necessarily one that believes that we can just talk and everyone can get along. I think that all options need to be on the table and that America needs to be taken seriously. I think these nations do understand that there is no match for us politically or militarily in this world, but we need to make sure that we lock that up. Not necessarily military action, but certainly there needs to be credibility in any statements we make that the military option is always on the table—we had better ensure that there is a military option available to us.
iF: Would you comment on Israeli-Palestinian relations? The Palestinian Authority didn’t seem to take the Secretary of State seriously.
EC: The underlying difficulty with Israeli-Palestinian talks is that right now there is no willingness on the part of Palestinians to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, period. And in the aftermath of the failed negotiations, Mr. Abbas has struck an agreement with Hamas, which is even more worrisome—in part because the administration has indicated that it will accept and work with a Palestinian government that contains Hamas.
Instead, the U.S. should send a message that there is no tolerance for terrorism, there is no tolerance for anyone who doesn’t accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. That needs to be very, very clear and made clear. Obviously, I’ve taken an issue with a lot of what the White House has done in terms of the Middle East peace talks: imposing conditions on Israel that are not imposed on Palestinians and insisting that it’s Israel’s fault that there’s no peace. The reason there is no peace is the unwillingness of the Palestinians to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and now made worse with a partnership in the making with Hamas—everything starts from there, and if you don’t have that fundamental agreement, you don’t have anything.
iF: If it isn’t possible to bring adversarial countries, such as Iran or Russia, into a more constructive international position, what is the best role for the U.S.? Common conversation has reduced the problem to “should we go to war, or is there nothing we can do?” Is there some place between war and a warm embrace that could work better?
EC: Yes, it’s about how we act. It’s about the message we send and the seriousness with which we convey to our allies and our foes that we mean business. When it comes to sanctions, we need to be tough. If we say we’re backing sanctions, there needs to be a relentless pursuit of sanctions against Russia, against Iran, anyone upon whom we impose these sanctions; they can’t be in word only. We can’t have a Commander in Chief who goes around the world just giving speeches; we need to make sure that our actions back whatever message is being given.
I go back to the unequivocal stances that America should be taking to back up our commitments to our allies. Let there be no misunderstanding—we will stand with those who stand with us. And it doesn’t mean that there is either “war or nothing.” It means that we have to be strong and we have the ability to deter aggressive action on the part of our foes. You know, the world right now sees that the message coming from the administration is that we are going to continue to cut our defense spending. This is incredibly foolish. It will increase instability and extremism, and from that, additional terrorism is going to grow. Who in the world is going to be there to help lead against that evil if not for the United States? The rhetoric coming out of the administration about ending American participation in the Afghan war leaves the world scratching its head and wondering if America is going to be there in a leadership role, a political role, an economic role—and how we can do that if our military cannot help the Afghans with security. We need to change that and become unequivocal that we are going to lead, and lead for the good.
iF: Would you give us your thoughts on Ukraine?
EC: I don’t see Mr. Putin giving up any time soon; he thinks he is on a foreign policy roll right now. We should support those in Ukraine who want to support democracy, tolerance, human rights, and the adoption of Western ideals. We should unequivocally support efforts in that regard, while not for one minute thinking we’re going to convince Mr. Putin to acquiesce and allow for Ukraine to forge its path with Western influence. But we should be very supportive of those democratic-leaning plans—party building and the other kinds of efforts that are underway, and hope that we will find a like-minded group of people that want freedom and democracy for their country.
iF: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said that the “greatest national security threat to this country at this point is the two square miles that encompasses the Capitol building and the White House.” How can the Federal Government overcome its seeming dysfunction in order to make the country stronger at home and abroad?
EC: Obviously we have a divided Congress, and a divided Washington between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s a divide within the two parties. I think we need to take extra steps to restore the notion of an America that leads. America has global interests, we need to be engaged globally—it doesn’t mean we have to carry the burden or pay the price for everyone—but we need American leadership. That is a rallying point, I think, for both parties on Capitol Hill and if we see the President defying that intention, Congress should and will speak out, certainly in the House, when appropriate. We have a challenge before us in that there is a competing demand for dollars, domestically and internationally, but our domestic stability is inextricably tied to our military capability, and that is something that we need to spend some more time promoting.
Because the domestic situation and the growth in the economy have been so lackluster and with so many people feeling vulnerable, it’s been difficult to focus on the important connection between our national security and our economic security, but certainly, not a day goes by that I don’t continue trying to bring people on both sides of the aisle toward a stronger America, and an America that leads.
iF: Could we continue our tour d’horizon with Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
EC: As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, I think after that after 9/11 the Saudi royal family understood that extremists and Islamists pose an existential threat to the government in Riyadh, and they share that concern with us. When it comes to the threat of Iran—it is a real estrangement—they share their concerns with Israel, Kuwait, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and others, all of whom see Iran as an existential threat. There is an opportunity for Washington to take advantage of this unique moment of unanimity on the part of the Arab states and Israel to counter and be very strong in the face of any opposition worldwide to getting very tough with Tehran. Right now there is an opportunity to join forces at that level.
Turkey has been an extreme disappointment. Prime Minister Erdogan is not just someone who doesn’t have personal, emotional ties with Israel; he is hostile to Israel and, in many ways, hostile to the Westernism Israel represents. It’s important that we be honest about the limitations of a partner like Turkey, and let it be known that there are certain red lines that we don’t expect allies to cross—but that goes back to the assumption that the United States is going to enforce those red lines. Again, it’s been a disappointment to see Turkey, because they’ve been a very important ally, but when it comes to things in the Middle East lately and seeming hostility towards Israel, that’s very troubling to me.
iF: In a word to inFOCUS Readers, would you say you are an optimist going forward, or a pessimist?
EC: I’m always an optimist. There’s no substitute or match for America. And our system is one in which you work hard, you earn the confidence and respect of others, and that goes in our system of private life as well as in the public arena, and as far as global leadership. We’ve got to keep at this and make the case, and God forbid there’s an intervening event in which the public sees the need again for a strong America. I am working every single day to try to promote an agenda that reflects the desire for an America that leads.
iF: On behalf of our readers, thank you for taking the time to meet with inFOCUS.