Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), represents one of the country’s most military-intensive congressional districts. A protector of American military capability and veterans’ services, he serves on the House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittees, overseeing our nation’s strategic weapons, ballistic missile defense, space programs, and Department of Energy national security programs. On the committee, he helps to ensure our nation is properly prepared for any missile or nuclear attacks. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen met with him in late December.
inFOCUS: Starting with Iran, What are the implications of a corridor over the top of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel to the Mediterranean Sea?
Mr. Lamborn: I’m very concerned about the possibility of a land bridge for the Iranians. The majority of weapons Iran is bringing to Syria – and on to Hezbollah and Lebanon – presently come by air and sometimes by sea; those are slower and susceptible to interruption. With the ability to use trucks over land, the huge influx of missiles, for instance, on the northern border of Israel, will only get worse. Importing fighters will become easier. Importing weapons for Hezbollah and other fighters that could be used against Israel will only get worse.
So, I’m concerned that our administration, even though it’s doing many good things – certainly much better than the previous administration – still seems to lack a consistent and coherent serious strategy for that part of the world. That’s partly understandable because the Syrian issue is so complicated and there are no easy or good solutions. But to take 400 Marines away seems to be a step in the wrong direction, even though I know we can use those Marines to good effect wherever they end up.
I am concerned that we have not yet arrived at the best Syrian strategy. Which means that by default, Iran and Russia, and bad actors like ISIS, will continue to have a larger role than they should.
iF: Do you think the American public would support a continuing military deployment in Syria?
Lamborn: Yes, if President Trump and other people in the administration were to make a case for it, I think a limited increase in our efforts there would certainly be acceptable to the American people. What the American people don’t want is another Iraq at this point in time, but no one’s talking about that.
The administration has a lot of latitude here, given that the American people understand that Iran is a serious problem in the region and America shouldn’t allow a vacuum that lets other people step in by default.
iF: Which is also partly the Kurdish question. They are our great allies on the ground, but we appear to be withdrawing from them as well.
Lamborn: The Kurds are a great American ally and should be supported as such. It was a mistake for them to push for an election recently because the United States – their primary international ally – wasn’t able to help them manage the aftermath, and we told them that. But despite that mistake we should arm them, because they are a reliable and brave ally, and they have the potential to continue to be a moderate force in the area. They’ve done much good for us in the past and they have the potential to continue doing much good for us in the future. So we should strengthen our ties with the Kurds.
iF: Is there a way that Congress can step in on some of this?
Lamborn: We’ve put language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) addressing this particular issue. There has been money specifically earmarked for the Kurds, for at least the past three years. The issue has been how much of it actually makes it to them and how the weapons deliveries are actually accomplished. The problem is that aid to the Kurds flows through Baghdad – and Baghdad doesn’t always deliver in a timely or complete way.
iF: But you’re not going to let this go, right?
Lamborn: No, no, no. We need to make sure that the Kurds remain American allies and that they have a working ability to fight against some of the region’s most malign forces.
iF: Do those malign forces include Turkey?
Lamborn: Turkey is a NATO ally, and we should not gratuitously insult or do things that harm Turkey’s interest. They are almost paranoid about the Kurds in their country, or the possibility of a Kurdish state – particularly in Syria, where the Turkish-Syrian border isn’t always properly demarcated and there are Kurdish tribes on both sides. They didn’t have quite the same problem with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, where the border was more clearly defined. We have to tread carefully. I’m an optimist who believes that if the administration works hard enough it can have a policy for Syria that incorporates Kurdish assistance while not offending the Turks, and in fact using them as an ally as well. That’s my hope.
iF: You’re going back to your original point here, which was that we don’t seem to have a coherent Syria policy, which makes it harder to do these things.
Lamborn: Yes. And there are so many trouble spots in the world right now. Some of them are newly developed, others are there because of Barack Obama’s inattention. But we have to let the administration have time to fill out all of these strategies. The fact that there isn’t a Syria strategy yet does not discourage me but I do want them to come up with one shortly.
iF: How do you think Russia sees us? Does it think that we’re an adversary, does it think we’re a competitor?
Lamborn: The answer to that centers on how Vladimir Putin views us because he has so much power that his personal views pretty much carry the day in Russia. He wants to restore lost Russian grandeur and prestige. He views the downfall of the USSR as the biggest geopolitical calamity of the 20th century – while pretty much everyone else in the world would point to other things as being worse. In fact, the collapse of the USSR was a blessing.
But Vladimir Putin views the United States as a competitor and he’s struggling to have a Russian resurgence in places like the Middle East. He is very opportunistic; I don’t see him having a grand strategy in far-flung places of the world. But at best he wants to be a player, and at worst he will be opposing U.S. interests.
His worst efforts from our point of view and that of our NATO allies, are in the states neighboring Russia. The invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the invasion of Georgia, interference in Moldova, all of these things are ways that he wants to keep influence in former Soviet satellites. That’s actually what he meant about the catastrophe – it was a catastrophe of losing control of millions of ethnic Russians who became citizens of those newly independent countries. He wants them back under Russian sovereignty. But he’s doing it in a way that does not win the hearts and minds of the people in those countries. At the first opportunity, I’m sure each of those countries will aggressively push away from Russia. And the United States should help those countries.
iF: That was my next question. What’s a good role for us?
Lamborn: The United States should help those countries, especially Ukraine, resist Russian aggression and restore their territorial integrity, and continue allowing them to pursue a path toward European and Western integration. They are entitled to choose the direction of their future, even if it isn’t the future Russia would want them to have. So, we should allow for loan guarantees and support, including supplying lethal aid to Ukraine.
iF: We don’t provide lethal aid at the moment?
Lamborn: No. We supply non-lethal help, but as the Ukrainian president said when he came and spoke here, “We appreciate meals and blankets. But we need arms.” That was several years ago but it still hasn’t changed. With the right kind of pressure, and Western assistance, the Ukrainians could make life very difficult for the Russians, even though the Russians are a superior military force. The Ukrainians are very brave, and they are resisting Russian encroachment, but if their pressure was to become even stronger then Russia would pay a higher price in political perception back home.
iF: As happened to them in Afghanistan. And I assume that the same would hold true for the Baltic states?
Lamborn: Yes, the Baltic states are very small but they’re very brave and they’re well-equipped for their size. And they are resisting Russian aggression, and they’re totally aligned with the West. I believe we have an excellent working relationship with Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
iF: Do you think NATO would go to war on behalf of Latvia?
Lamborn: Yes. Under Article 5, I believe we would back up our commitments. An invasion of one of is an invasion of all.
iF: I’m happy to hear you say that you think we’d be where we’re supposed to be.
Lamborn: Yes, and as a matter of fact, I was in two Baltic States in August. We saw American troops training and working with the host countries. Some of those troops were from Fort Carson in my congressional district – the 4th Infantry Division. And that does two things. It gives the NATO allies a greater awareness of what roadblocks there might be, sometimes literally, in deploying in the case of an emergency or crisis. For instance, if you find out that a bridge is too narrow for tanks to cross, the host country can fix that problem. Second, it sends a strong message to the Russians that the United States is taking this very seriously. So even though we don’t have permanent bases in the three Baltic countries, we do have a very robust presence.
iF: China clearly rolled out the red carpet for the president. They wanted him to be happy. Underneath that, do they see us as an adversary, or as a competitor?
Lamborn: Both. There are elements, perhaps in the military or intelligence that see us an adversary. But at a minimum, many or most will see us as a competitor. I’m hopeful we can reach the point in the future where we cooperate on many issues including, but going beyond, trade. The Chinese are dead-set on expanding their influence in places like the South China Sea, and they’re using methods like expanding and building upon atolls that offend everyone in the area and that violate international norms. They are doing things that are territorially very aggressive.
In response, the United States must continue to strengthen ties with our allies in the region, and I think the administration is doing a very good job of this. This includes Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. And we also need to include Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others.
iF: Does it include Taiwan?
Lamborn: It should definitely include Taiwan. Obviously, it’s in a unique category.
There have been a few hiccups with South Korea. I’m not convinced it was helpful to question our free trade agreement with South Korea during this time of sensitivity. And I think that the new South Korean leader, who leans more to the left than the previous South Korean administration, was too quick to bow to Chinese demands to stop expanding American-provided missile defense on the peninsula. I think U.S. missile defense equipment is the best way of addressing the North Korean problem in the short run. And you can’t talk about China without talking about North Korea and vice versa, which is why I’m bringing up North Korea.
China needs to go beyond just words and it has to show by its actions that it’s putting pressure on North Korea. The UN is unable to do very much and what little it can do it’s already pretty much done. The United States can continue financial sanctions and should strengthen those. And we should press the Chinese for economic sanctions, especially energy to North Korea, both coal and oil. But what the United States can do that no one else can do is give South Korea THAAD missile defense batteries that will protect South Korea in the event of medium-range missiles coming from North Korea. I think South Korea should go further in this direction. We’re already doing this with Japan.
iF: And if we could get China to agree to that it would be a huge step for China.
Lamborn: China believes that the radars of these missile defense installations are looking far into China. That is simply not true. We don’t. We are only concerned with North Korean activity, and deterring that.
iF: On to the other side of the world and to happier news. there’s no better defender of Israel than you.Can you talk about ways that Israel is a helpful ally to the United States?
Lamborn: I really want to see America and Israel working together on tunnel detection and destruction. And we’ve made some steps in that direction, especially on the funding side, and I’ve been instrumental in initiating that in our legislation. But those resources could be better deployed. However, Israel has detected some tunnels and recently blew up a tunnel on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip, and it killed a bunch of Palestinians who were doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. I don’t think anyone on the side of the West will mourn their passing.
When it comes to missile defense, Israel did a great job with developing Iron Dome and the U.S. taxpayer and people in Congress, myself included, have been very supportive and have given large amounts of U.S. aid to help that materialize and progress. Israel has shared that technology and I certainly anticipate that we can use that technology to protect our own interests overseas. We don’t have a missile threat on our borders, fortunately, but we do have troops and allies that are threatened, across the ocean, as we just discussed.
Israel has been a great partner, sharing technology while we have helped them fund further batteries for Iron Dome. And most of the money we give to Israel comes right back to us through Israeli purchases of American equipment and technology – 75 percent right now. It’s a great working relationship.
iF: I knew there was good news in this interview somewhere. And that’s it. What should we say about Egypt?
Lamborn: For 40 years, since the historic visit by Anwar Sadat to the Knesset, Israel and Egypt have been at peace. And those are the two most powerful countries in the region. It was a cold peace at times, but what has emerged is a wonderful and significant development. And they seem to be, especially under the leadership of President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, continuing their strong and positive relationship.
iF: Should the United States be helping Egypt more than it is?
Lamborn: We should help him even more than we do now. The Trump administration is doing that better than the previous administration. There is a place to criticize an authoritarian government for human rights issues. But we should not do that to the point where we lose our ability to have a working relationship. And we should not do that to the point where they lose the ability to pursue their own interests. And like many have said, and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said, the choice is you either have the military running Egypt or you have the Muslim Brotherhood running Egypt. I’d rather have the military running Egypt. I have no problem with that.
iF: Does it worry you that the Russians are now going to be using Egypt for an air basing facility?
Lamborn: It bothers me to see the Russians exerting an expanding influence in the Middle East anywhere, including Egypt.
iF: Last Israel question. Peace process? Is there one? Can there be one? Should there be one?
Lamborn: Things have reached a point where the next step should be taken by the Palestinians. Israel has made so many concessions in the past, and they have not been reciprocated. Rather than push Israel to make further concessions that endanger its security, we should turn to the Palestinians and say, “It’s your turn to make a concession.” They should do things like recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state; a legitimate and permanent part of the region. And there are other efforts. The Palestinian Authority should stop incitement, stop glorifying terrorism, stop educating the next generation to be anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.
My legislation in the House, the Taylor Force Act, which Lindsey Graham is carrying in the Senate, has great bipartisan support. Taylor Force is a way of inducing the Palestinians to stop incitement by reducing American budget aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is paying salaries to terrorists and to their families. The Taylor Force Act passed the House on December 5, and is heading to the Senate.
The Palestinians need to take tangible steps and make concessions on their part.
There is strong bipartisan support for each of these things in Congress, which is encouraging. Sometimes we disagree on how strongly to exert Congress’s authority or ability to control the purse strings. And different administrations may or may not cooperate so much with Congress. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not cooperate very much. The Taylor Force Act is an example of Congress taking a step in the right direction. One of the really bad elements about those payments is that they were structured by the PA so that you get a higher payment if you’ve killed more Jews, and more Israelis. That’s just reprehensible. Taylor Force wasn’t either Jewish or Israeli. He was an American visitor who happened to be on Israeli soil, and that’s why he was targeted. So hopefully that tragic story gets the attention of Americans.
iF: let’s go to Latin America next. What can the United States do, if anything, to be helpful to the people of Venezuela who live under really difficult circumstances?
Lamborn: Venezuela is a problem not only because of its socialist government, but also because of its relationship with Iran. At the same time, I’m encouraged by the fact that the Trump administration has reversed some of the Cuba policy that Barack Obama started. President Obama made concessions to the Cubans without getting anything in return. That’s horrible diplomacy, and it’s a bad example in all of Latin America. Because Venezuela has a close relationship with and gets some assistance from Cuba, it also will see how the United States interacts with Cuba and draw its own conclusions. I’m hopeful that we won’t just be stronger in our demands for Cuban reform – I think that’s coming – but that we will also be stronger toward Venezuela’s government.
The previous administration didn’t do anything to make Venezuela pay for its human rights abuses. I’m not sure the Trump administration has finalized its approach to Venezuela, so I don’t know what that will look like yet, but we need to assist the pro-democracy forces in that country. There is a large group of Venezuelans who know democratic norms, who have practiced them and who are bravely fighting the current regime. But they’re at risk of falling even further under the heavy hand of oppression.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is violating all norms of democracy by the way he’s cracking down on the pro-democracy forces in his country, and the way he’s consolidating power in his own hands. Some things he’s doing are even worse than what Hugo Chavez was doing.
I’m hopeful that we’ll see a better policy toward Venezuela. There are so many troubled spots in the world right now, starting with North Korea of course, and Iran as well, that I don’t think we’ve yet seen the administration be able to turn its full attention to Latin America.
iF: Back to where we started. Iran–this time its nuclear capabilities. What are we supposed to do about this?
Lamborn: You saved the easiest for last.
Once again, I’m hopeful that the Trump administration will carry through on its good words, both Mr. Trump’s positions while he was campaigning, and the things administration officials have said since January. We can’t let Iran develop a nuclear weapon; that’s simply the bottom line. And the trouble with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is that it gives them a nuclear weapon as soon as a few years. As soon as the requisite time goes by – the sunset clauses kick in after 10 to 15 years, and we’re counting down from 2015.
This is the position that [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has taken. The Iranian deal, the JCPOA, gives a nuclear weapon to Iran – it’s just a matter of time. And we can’t let that happen. Their history and their track record should make it clear that if they have that power to hold over the heads of their neighbors, including but not only Israel, or the fact that they like to use proxies and give weapons to proxies and try to avoid having fingerprints, it’s just an untenable situation. I applaud President Trump for refusing to certify in the latest round that Iran is in compliance.
As a member of Congress, I look forward to working with the administration very soon to flesh out what that means. At a minimum, we will be imposing stronger sanctions. The administration has already been doing that, sanctioning individuals and companies and banks for behavior related not only to nuclear capabilities, but to missile capabilities, terrorism and human rights. Where we go from there may depend on how Iran responds. But in any case, we’ve just started reversing some of the bad effects of the Obama administration. Iran is a powerful and malignant country. And so obviously it has to be treated with a lot of caution. But they can’t be allowed to own nuclear weapons.
iF: Thank you, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Magazine.