U.S. Representative Ed Royce serves as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—on which he has served since entering Congress in 1993. A staunch supporter of Israel and an important voice on confronting ISIS, Chairman Royce previously served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, and was a member of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen caught up with him in Washington shortly after a visit to Israel. The conversation focused on NATO and its ability to meet the demands of security in an increasingly complex age.
inFOCUS: The crisis in Ukraine is the second Russian foray into independent countries that are former Russian territories, the 2008 Georgian war being the first. Do you see Russia having further designs on the territory of its former provinces? If so, how can the U.S. and Europeans discourage Russian adventurism?
Ed Royce: The U.S. has always strongly supported the right of all countries to determine their own futures within their internationally recognized borders, especially those countries such as Ukraine and Georgia that once were part of the former Soviet Union. United States assistance has supported democratic development and free market economies, as these are prerequisites to stability and security in every country. Trade between the U.S. or Western Europe and these countries is one of the surest ways to enhance our ties with them and further their development. The U.S. could dramatically support Ukraine if we were to export our abundant natural gas supply, lessening the country’s dependence on Russia for its energy.
Putin has demonstrated that his goal is to reestablish the role of Russia as a “Great Power” with the right to dominate the countries of the former empire. He has stated that Russia has the right and duty to defend ethnic Russian populations in other countries, such as Ukraine. There are a number of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and which have ethnic Russian minorities, the most important being Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan. A massive Russian propaganda machine is sowing discontent in these countries.
The U.S. and its allies, especially in Europe, must make clear to Putin that his efforts to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries under any pretext will result in the imposition of sanctions and other measures that will isolate him and place unbearable pressure on his country.
iF: Would you support continued NATO enlargement into the Balkans, or even into former Russian territory such as Ukraine or Georgia?
ER: This alliance has been, and always will be, about collective defense, and we should be cautious about making sacrosanct defense commitments far from our shores. If NATO had admitted Ukraine or Georgia, then the U.S. and its European allies may have found themselves at war with Russia. Making commitments that we may not be prepared to carry out also holds the inherent danger of encouraging some foreign leaders to miscalculate their actions. We don’t want a situation in which faith in NATO’s defense commitments are eroded.
At a time when several of our European allies have cut their defense budgets below responsible levels and our own defense budget is under increasing pressure, the U.S. should not seek to expand our commitments to where there is little or no threat to U.S. interests. Our focus should be on ensuring that we can meet our existing commitments to our allies and our allies to us. We can still provide security assistance to non-NATO members, as we have. We just need to be careful in extending absolute defense commitments.
iF: NATO was conceived as an alliance to prevent the westward movement of the Soviet Union, but even with the collapse of the USSR, NATO remains a cornerstone of our defense policy. You mentioned the defense spending cuts. How can the U.S. encourage NATO allies to fund important initiatives while sequestration has made the U.S. defense budget shrink for now and for the foreseeable future?
ER: Our European allies have slashed their defense spending well below responsible levels and are even losing basic capabilities to defend themselves. Only four NATO members currently meet the requirement of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, one of which is the U.S. So it is difficult to see more NATO operations outside of Europe. Several of our NATO allies have made significant contributions to our efforts in Afghanistan, but similar missions in the future are increasingly unlikely.
Despite the pressures on the U.S. defense budget, we have managed to maintain our ability to carry out our commitments to our NATO allies. Russian aggression against Ukraine and other countries has highlighted the danger created by our European allies slashing their defense budgets. Our allies, and not just the U.S., must commit to maintaining adequate defenses for their own and the collective defense.
iF: Do you foresee further American disengagement from Europe given a) the limitations on the American budget and b) the lack of direct threat posed to the United States from Europe?
ER: Despite sequestration and other constraints to the defense budget, the United States has prioritized funding our commitments to the NATO alliance, and I believe we will continue to do so. The recent aggressive actions by Russia in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe have had the additional impact of emphasizing how critical it is that the United States remains involved in the region as a demonstration of our Article V NATO Treaty obligation.
Our strong transatlantic relationship is the cornerstone for U.S. security, therefore I do not believe we’ll see reductions in the U.S. military contribution to NATO. In fact, at the recent NATO Summit in Wales the United States and other partners agreed to bolster NATO’s “rapid reaction force” to strengthen deterrence and reassure worried member states.
iF: Could European concerns about ISIS and radical jihadists returning from Iraq/Syria create movement in Europe for joint US-European action against ISIS?
ER: The return of radicalized European Islamists from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria is a security concern both for Europe and the United States. I do believe that there are opportunities for enhanced cooperation against ISIS. Several European nations have already agreed to join a coalition with the United States to fight against ISIS forces, and those who may not be able or willing to engage ISIS militarily can strengthen the coalition’s efforts by increased intelligence sharing and logistical support.
Such increased cooperation between the U.S. and Europe is needed, but equally important is the need for greater intelligence sharing among European nations themselves, particularly in regard to their own citizens who have been radicalized while fighting abroad with ISIL. This was unfortunately illustrated by Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, a member of ISIL, who had fought in Syria and is currently detained by Belgian authorities for a deadly shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Brussels. Nemmouche was able to travel freely throughout Europe on his return from Syria despite being on France’s terrorist watch list. He was only detained after a random border drug search found the weapons he used in the shooting at the museum in his luggage. If his inclusion on France’s terror watch list had been adequately shared with other European nations, he would never have been allowed to travel through Europe so freely. Greater transparency and information sharing of national terror watch lists is therefore critical for Europe to effectively combat this growing threat.
iF: Can you talk about our NATO ally Turkey?
ER: I’m very worried about the direction of Turkey. If Turkey is to become a more central part of Europe, European ideals and principles must be the foundation of its government’s policies. Unfortunately, the recent trend in Turkey has been to actively curtail those very ideals of democracy, free expression, religious liberty, and tolerance.
Furthermore, greater integration with the European Union will only be possible once Turkey ends its hostility towards EU member-states, specifically Greece and Cyprus. While there has been some rhetorical show of support in Ankara for reconciliation efforts on Cyprus in recent months, Turkey must follow through with concrete actions to end its aggressive posturing in the Aegean, stop its harassment of Cypriot merchant and energy exploration vessels, open its ports to Cypriot flagged vessels, and commit its full, unqualified support for the reunification efforts on Cyprus, including the agreement to withdraw its military troops from the island. These efforts need to be undertaken before Turkey’s process towards integration with the EU advances.
It’s disappointing to watch the Turkish-Israeli relationship derail. Previous efforts such as official statements and bilateral meetings have obviously not been enough to persuade Turkey to remove its opposition. We must continue and increase those diplomatic efforts. In addition, we should make clear to Turkish leaders that continued opposition may be reflected in our military aid relationship. Also, we should increase our military cooperation with Israel, including conduct of more bilateral or multilateral military exercises with Israel outside of the NATO context. I was just in Israel where I discussed with Israeli officials the tremendous success of the Iron Dome rocket defense system, a joint U.S.-Israel undertaking. The two countries can do even more together in this area. I was also in one of the Gaza tunnels. The U.S. and Israel should be cooperating more on new technologies to detect Hamas’ tunnels into Israel.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a symptom of a larger problem—the overall deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations. Many observers state that those ties began to unravel following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, but I believe they began long before that. Just look at how since coming to power the AKP has hosted Hamas leaders on official “state visits” and the time in Davos when then Prime Minister Erdogan called Israeli President Shimon Peres a leader who “really knows how to kill.” Furthermore, if relations were strained simply due to the flotilla incident, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s apology should have paved the way back to normalization of relations. Yet we continue to see Turkish leaders voice hateful rhetoric against Israel that incites violence against the Jewish community. Just this July, then-Prime Minister Erdogan claimed that Israel had “surpassed the Nazis in barbarism.” The United States cannot allow such heinous rhetoric to stand unchallenged. We must condemn such comments at every opportunity, and press Turkey to restore positive relations with Israel.
iF: Are you supporting the US-EU free trade deal (TTIP)? How does it fit into overall U.S. economic and political interests?
ER: I strongly support the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) because it has the potential to boost U.S.-EU trade by more than $120 billion within five years, generate millions of new jobs, and reduce costs for consumers. TTIP is an opportunity we simply cannot afford to miss. I have encouraged the Obama Administration to intensify its negotiations with the European Union and send TTIP to Congress for approval as soon as possible.
Closer cooperation between the U.S. and EU will lead to common approaches to resolving trade issues with other countries, to a stronger hand in our negotiations at the World Trade Organization, and ultimately to higher job and economic growth. With TTIP in place, we can more effectively push back on threats like the “indigenous innovation” policy in Beijing that continues to require our companies hand over valuable intellectual property and technology in order to access China’s market.
Trade has an immense impact on my home state of California. Last year, more than $168 billion in goods were exported through California ports, 17 percent of which were purchased by European Union countries.
iF: The major European allies were generally supportive of Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire – but only to a point. How strong can U.S. support of Israel be absent the support of our major political and economic allies, the Europeans?
ER: The United States has continued to stand strongly behind Israel in multiple UN and international bodies, and U.S. support for Israel will continue to be strong—particularly when faced with initiatives such as “BDS.” By working with our European counterparts, we can hope to change this dynamic. However, the Israelis are better suited to do so themselves. Israel is a bastion of free-market, democratic governance in a sea of autocracies and chaos.
The Israelis have a dynamic and growing economy, which is clearly an asset to leverage with respect to Europe. For example, in the agricultural sector, Israel has not only made the desert bloom, but they have become a major exporter of agricultural commodities such as citrus to Europe. And now, with the continuing discoveries of non-associated gas, which has just come online, and associated gas and crude oil, Israel has the opportunity to not only become energy self-sufficient, but also a major energy exporter to Europe—a dynamic that could help reduce Europe’s vulnerability to Russian-supplied gas. The Europeans seem to misalign their economic interests and political proclivities. Working with Israel, we can help them understand the tangible benefits to maintaining close ties with the Jewish State.
iF: Could the advancement of ISIS encourage the Europeans (and the U.S.) to see Israel’s fight against Hamas in the same vein as the Western fight against ISIS?
ER: Unfortunately, the ISIS threat may not change Europe’s view of Israel’s fight against Hamas, at least for now. The political dynamics in Europe are very different from those in the U.S. In fact, the very reasons that European governments are so vocally opposed to ISIS—in part, public opinion influenced by their Muslim population—are the same reasons they tend to be critical of Israeli strikes in against Hamas targets in Gaza. Further complicating these issues is the fact that Americans are much more likely to consider Hamas a terrorist organization, while European governments are more willing to accept Hamas as a political organization, at times even providing them with direct foreign aid.
However, I believe the Europeans, the United States and Israel can see the wisdom of aligning our policies to prevent Hamas from rearming; in the same manner that we are examining ways to deny ISIS the resources necessary to continue its operations.
Reports indicate that Hamas has started to rebuild its military capabilities, including rebuilding tunnels and rockets. Now is the time to act. We must proactively target their sources of financing. Qatar, which hosts Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, has been identified by various sources as Hamas’s main external source of funding. Turkey has also been named in many instances as a financial backer of Hamas and alleged host for major Hamas fundraisers. We need the help of our European allies to address this problem. And then there is Iranian and North Korean support for Hamas.
We need their help in ensuring that any long-term agreement guarantees that Hamas cannot replenish its arsenal of rockets or rebuild the tunnels it uses to attack Israel. I have been in one of these tunnels and they present a serious threat to our ally. In fact, our mutual goal must be the dismantlement of the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza—particularly in any UN Security Council Resolution creating a framework for Gaza. A critical component of this strategy is working with our European allies to target Hamas’ logistical and financial networks—and ultimately prevent them from acquiring the resources to rearm.
It is frustrating that Hamas maintains the sympathy it does given that it abuses the Palestinian people, using them as human shields, murdering its Palestinian political opponents, spending money on rockets and tunnels and not books. In Europe, we see Hamas supporters leading the protest chants, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” We all need to do a better job de-legitimizing this terrorist organization in Europe, but most importantly, among Palestinians. This will take time, but there will be no peace for Israel if it doesn’t happen.
iF: As we have discussed, anti-Semitism has been rising in Europe for the past several years and the recent Gaza war ignited an explosion of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violent behavior across European cities. Do you see the potential for a rift between the United States and our European allies over anti-Semitism?
ER: I am concerned with a general rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, and, indeed globally. When Israel was forced to confront Hamas rockets earlier this year, it also had to contend with a multifaceted attempt to de-legitimatize the country around the globe. Once again, we see the UN Human Rights Council passing a one-sided resolution holding Israel to a different standard than the rest of the world. While the Administration voted against the resolution, many of our European allies merely abstained, leaving us and Israel very isolated. Too many countries take a callous attitude toward Israel with these votes.
The effort made by the UN Human Rights Council must be seen in the context of rising anti-Semitism. In Germany and other European countries—especially France—Jews have been attacked on the street, synagogues have been bombed, Jewish groups have received hate mail and anti-Semitic slogans have been spray-painted on buildings. I am particularly concerned with how these sentiments feed into the recruitment ability of ISIS. For example, the French citizen suspected of killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May fought with ISIS forces in Syria, the very group that the U.S. is currently striking in Iraq and a fight that several European nations have agreed to join. The return of battle hardened fighters to Europe and the U.S. is a serious threat.
iF: Chairman Royce, on behalf of The Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS, I want to thank you for a thoughtful tour d’horizon that puts a number of important issues into perspective. We appreciate your time and your candor.