Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL) is a Colonel in the National Guard, a combat-decorated Green Beret, former White House and Pentagon policy advisor, a small business owner, an author, and a proud father. He is the first Green Beret to be elected to Congress. His experiences as a soldier and a policy advisor inspired him to write the book, “Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan,” the proceeds of which continue to benefit the Green Beret and Matthew Pucino Foundations. inFOCUS Quarterly editor, Shoshana Bryen, met with him in Washington.
inFOCUS: For years, the U.S. and NATO gave credit to Russia for the military capability it claimed to have. But it seems not to. If a country can’t accomplish its objectives with conventional weapons and forces, rather than scaling back its aims, would it be more likely to go to nuclear capability faster?
Rep. Michael Waltz: Two points – what did we get right and what did we get wrong when it comes to Ukraine? One thing we got absolutely right, and this is what our intelligence does best, was counting tanks, planes, ships, seeing them move, hearing them communicate. We gave the entire world a heads up, effectively, that this was coming. What our intelligence community missed, and in fairness is much, much harder to assess, are what, in military terms, we call readiness issues: morale, training, logistics, maintenance, operational tactics and techniques, leadership. Those things are where we clearly overestimated Russian capabilities.
And on the Ukrainian side, we vastly underestimated those same things. We just missed it on both. I think we need to take a very wide-eyed look at that, particularly as it applies to other adversaries around the world, and as we continue to apply taxpayer dollars to our intelligence community.
And then to your point on nukes, what the world is seeing, firsthand, is what a country can get away with conventionally when it has a nuclear umbrella and how it can really rattle that nuclear saber and deter all types of intervention and all types of actions with the threat of nuclear escalation. I can’t think of anywhere that applies more directly than the case of Iran. Iran is absolutely seeing what Putin is able to get away with, how he is deterring the United States and NATO every time he rattles his nuclear saber. And I think it’s likely only exacerbated their drive towards obtaining an operational nuclear weapon.
iF: We do treat nuclear countries differently than non-nuclear countries. Which to the Iranians means they are justified in their quest. Is that a reason for us to stop the Vienna talks, since the Iranians are unlikely to give up?
Rep. Waltz: We need to find some type of resolution before Iran achieves an operational capability, but the way this administration is going about it is all wrong. They’re just making concession after concession and placing our adversaries – Russia and China – in the room as our representatives. I think the Trump administration maximum pressure campaign absolutely should have continued. I do believe if President Trump had gotten a second term, the Iranian regime would have come to the table from a position of weakness. We saw the effects that sanctions had on its currency, on its economy, on the ability of Iran to export terror to its proxies.
But the hope of those sanctions being lifted really breathed life into the Iranian regime. It emboldened them in the negotiations and sent us down the horrible path that we’re on. That’s a long way of answering, yes, we should cut off the talks, achieve a position of strength, continue to hurt the regime in areas that it cares about most, which is its wallet and its ability to enrich its elites. It’s just really a shame that the same group that put the 2015 JCPOA in place and gave away the leverage that we had finally achieved with true international consensus on sanctions, including China at the time, is doing the same now. It is an absolutely flawed approach.
iF: Do you think the United States is actually pushing Israel closer to having to take military action on its own accord?
Rep. Waltz: The Iranian regime continues to put out its hateful rhetoric about wiping Israel off the face of the earth. I think every Israeli really believes they would, and they would be emboldened to do so, if they had a nuclear weapon. I hope and pray Israel doesn’t have to take matters into its own hands, but I also don’t see this administration assisting with the capabilities, particularly tankers, Israel would need to do so. And meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to harden, disperse, and strengthen its capabilities to withstand such an attack.
The situation is really unclear at this point, and that’s the fault of this White House.
They need to make it very clear that we stand with our ally Israel, and they need to make it very clear that we will not – diplomatically, economically, militarily, or otherwise – stand for Iran armed with a nuclear capability. People need to fully appreciate that a nuclear Iran will absolutely mean an arms race in the Middle East. The Saudis will want a nuclear weapon, the Turks. I constantly have to make the case to Floridians – people I represent, who are working hard for that tax dollar that we’re spending abroad – how this affects them at home. A nuclear arms race across the Middle East and our ally Israel threatened with being obliterated by this murderous regime, with terrorists who are emboldened and financed by Iran under a nuclear umbrella, should strike fear in the hearts of every American.
iF: Have we gotten rid of the idea that we could de-list the IRGC as a terrorist organization? It seems as if even some Democrats have hopped onto the idea that this would be a really terrible thing to do.
Rep. Waltz: Yes. There is a bipartisan approach here and it’s substantive. Democrats that have spoken up. I also think politically in a midterm election year, after we saw the massive concessions and retreat in Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban terrorists, and now with ISIS and Al Qaeda once again on the march to be able to strike our homeland, to give that kind of concession to a terrorist organization that’s responsible for 600 dead American soldiers, that has sown mayhem and committed atrocities across the Middle East. I think they’ve made both a political and a substantive calculation.
I have led a letter that 70 Democrats have signed onto, along with 70 Republicans, saying any future deal has to consider missiles, has to consider terrorism. The fact that Iran is holding Americans hostages, right now as we speak, much less all the components of a nuclear program, means we have to have real oversight and an investigative regime so we can actually hold Iran to account. I do think you see bipartisan support for all of those things on Capitol Hill and that’s caused the administration, I hope to somewhat tap the brakes on heading down this disastrous road.
iF: Did you get a response from the White House?
Rep. Waltz: We did not. But they can’t ignore 140 members of Congress. We don’t come together on much, but when you have 70 Republicans and 70 Democrats saying, “This is a bad idea and here’s what it needs to include,” that can’t be ignored.
iF: You mentioned oversight, and with oversight comes enforcement obligations. A lot of countries sign onto things, saying they agree to something, but live up to it only until it feels like it doesn’t want to. Are the only enforcement mechanisms military? Do we no longer have a rules based order where your signature means something?
Rep. Waltz: Diplomacy and soft power have to be backed up by hard power. That is a fundamental flaw of this administration and this president, frankly, who continues to tell our adversaries what he won’t do and continues to take hard power off the table. That essentially neuters our diplomats and diplomatic agreements. Vladimir Putin has stated his aim to reconstitute the Soviet Union, which would mean invading his neighbors. But you tell him that the military option to stop him is off the table, he’s going to continue to push until he meets steel. Fortunately, the Ukrainians far outdistanced the world’s and Putin’s assessment of their capability and Zelensky far outdistanced everyone’s estimation of his leadership.
When you have dictatorships, as in China, in Russia and Iran, Venezuela and others, they’re going to push until they’re stopped with force, so you have to leave all options on the table when you’re engaging diplomatically.
iF: That’s one of the reasons a lot of people appreciated President Trump taking care of Soleimani. We now have a set of sanctions on Russia that don’t seem to be having the right effect. The Europeans are still importing Russian oil and gas, but we’ve also embargoed Russian fertilizer, which is a problem for us and others. Russia is making a lot more money right this minute with higher prices for fewer oil sales. We seem to have sanctioned ourselves instead of Russia.
Rep. Waltz: Sanctions only work in an incredibly diverse and complicated global economy when the largest economies are unified in those sanctions. We didn’t really achieve anything close to unity on Iran until around 2010 led by the Republican Congress. That’s what drove Iran to the table. And on the one hand I do support sanctions in the sense that these dictatorships don’t care about their own people. They care about their own enrichment, their wallets, and really enriching their supporters and their elites to help them hold onto power. And if you structure sanctions in a way that hits these dictatorships and these regimes where it hurts, then I think they can have some effect, and they finally did have effect on Iran.
In the case of Russia, the only unity right now is the United States and some European countries. But meanwhile, Russia is doing just as much, if not more business with China, India, South Africa, Brazil, the Middle East, and on and on. Unless you have really unanimous action at least among the largest economies, they have very limited effect. But they often make administrations like this one pat themselves on the back and talk tough and provide virtue signaling. But at the end of the day, they’re not effective.
iF: Let’s slide across the world and look at China and Taiwan. The president said we would defend Taiwan. That’s not in the Taiwan Relations Act. Why would it be important for the United States to defend Taiwan and what’s the best way to do it?
Rep. Waltz: We’ve maintained a policy called “strategic ambiguity” since 1979. On the one hand, we didn’t want the Taiwanese to lurch toward independence, which according to every Chinese premier, would precipitate some type of conflict. But on the other hand, we do have obligations in law to provide military assistance to Taiwan if it is attacked. So, we left it ambiguous, but now we need to move toward strategic clarity. The driver for that is actually the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi, who is telling his country to prepare for war, openly talking about replacing the United States as a global leader and talking about dominating the U.S. military within a certain timeframe.
It’s time for clarity and deterrence. I supported what President Biden said. What’s so disappointing is that then his staff seemed emboldened to walk back what the Commander in Chief said on a global stage. They muddied the waters, and that kind of mixed messaging is incredibly dangerous. Whether it’s to Putin when Mr. Biden is throwing out terms like “regime change” and then gets walked back, or when it’s as it relates to Taiwan.
In terms of how to defend Taiwan, I think now we’ve seen the mistakes that this administration made when it comes to deterrence. They’re in love with a term called “integrated deterrence,” which means a combination of diplomacy, economic measures, cyber space, and other things. I support all of that, but it can’t be a substitute for hard power, and it can’t be a substitute for real weapon systems that can actually inflict damage on an invading force.
Number one, we have to arm Taiwan before hostilities are initiated. We can’t let a city like Taipei be leveled like Mariupol, Kharkiv or others, and then lead a tough response. We have to deter China in the first place, and we failed to deter Russia. We have to arm Taiwan. We have to help them on readiness issues, such as maintenance and training, morale, operational techniques, defense in depth and otherwise, and we have to fully fund our defense budget. Accounting for inflation, the U.S. is facing cuts in the defense budget. The Navy is retiring more ships than it’s building. The Chinese are outbuilding our Navy at a rate of five new ships to one. They are launching more into space than us and the rest of the world combined.
The thing that’s so frustrating to me is it’s our money that’s fueling their military buildup. If you look at Wall Street, Hollywood, the sports industry, NBA owners that have invested billions into the Chinese economy, heck even the military’s 401(k) plan is on the verge of investing in the Chinese stock exchange, on which Chinese defense firms are listed and from which they will be capitalized. We need a real wakeup call here in this country as to what’s going on. Historians are going to look back and say, “You guys were asleep at the switch. You were in love with cheap goods and greed got the best of you.” We’ve got to decouple. We’ve got to bring our supply chains back home. And we need to wake up to the fact that made in America isn’t just a jobs issue. It’s a national security issue.
iF: Looking at another side of that, you talked to the CNO, Admiral Michael Gilday, about plans to modernize the Navy. It seems we’re looking at new technologies as opposed to more ships and more planes. Is there a point at which we should not be looking to futurism, but actually more platforms, and have we reached that point?
Rep. Waltz: We’re in a negative spiral called “divest to invest.” We have to shut down older systems in order to free up the funds to invest in newer technologies, and that creates a real dip in our capabilities. Unfortunately, we will be at the bottom of our dip within about five years, and that’s when the Chinese believe they will be at the apex of their build up and their technology. We’re in a very dangerous window between 2024 and 2027 for a military invasion of Taiwan, which we may not be able to stop or deter.
Why does that matter to everyday Americans getting their kids off to school or going to work? If China is successful in taking Taiwan, they will control all of the trade and shipping routes into Japan, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia. They will control about 50% of global GDP and trade, 90% of computer chips. Again, the fact is we’re A) funding it, but B) allowing them to create dependencies in our economy. We no longer produce antibiotics, the Chinese produce 90% of the world’s antibiotics, cancer medications, rare earth materials that form the basis of our modern economy. Computer chips, even rail cars that ship our goods from port to stores. They dominate all of it. We’ve allowed them to do that, and we have to start unraveling that yesterday.
iF: Are we coming to that realization?
Rep. Waltz: Yes. That was a silver lining in COVID, that Americans were really hit in the face with the fact that mask, gowns and gloves, as cheap as we want them to be, can become a national security issue tomorrow. With the Chinese openly threatening to shut down supply chains if we don’t agree with their view of the world, or if we call them out on things like COVID origin or the genocide that’s going on with the Uighurs or the stamping out of freedom in Hong Kong, they’ll shut down our supply of medicine.
That was a real wake up call.
It certainly was in our political class. I don’t think it has been completely in our investor class and with our major multinational corporations. You have companies like Nike that want to preach social justice here at home, that want to boycott Georgia over voting reform laws, but when it comes to millions of Chinese citizens in concentration camps, literally picking cotton in Western China that is provided to Nike’s apparel supply chain at the end of a barrel of a gun, they completely turn a blind eye. I think you’re going to see me and others calling out that hypocrisy at every turn.
iF: Let’s turn to Afghanistan because you, of all people, have something to say about it. How do you see the long-term effects of our pullout?
Rep. Waltz: In a number of hearings, the military from General Milley to General McKenzie, who was the head of Central Command (CENTCOM), are crystal clear that they advised the president to leave that force there. I want to be clear, that force was not engaged in direct combat. I understand the weariness with this war, but they were providing the Afghans the air support, the intelligence support, the maintenance, the logistics, all of the things they needed to continue to fight going forward. And we yanked out all of that support.
It was also a debacle from a human rights standpoint. Now we see the Taliban breaking every promise – I would never trust a promise from a terrorist, but this administration did. Every promise when it comes to human rights, women’s rights or a journalist or anything else that we hold dear has been broken.
It was a debacle in terms of our credibility. As we saw, both Russia and Chinese state-owned enterprises blasted out that America can’t be relied on, particularly to Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltics, and others.
And most of all, it’s a disaster from a counter-terrorism standpoint. The intelligence community is very clear that Al Qaeda and ISIS fully intend to attack us again. They’re developing the capability to do so. There are reports of 10-15,000 foreign fighters migrating away from the Middle East and over to what is now a Taliban caliphate and terrorist super state in Afghanistan. And the thing that so upsets me is that the Obama administration yanked us out of Iraq with no backup plan. Years later, we saw the rise of the ISIS caliphate and untold atrocities they committed in the region, in Europe and around the world. We had to send American soldiers, special operators, and intel officers back to deal with it.
But when we had to go back into the Middle East after that debacle, we had access from the ocean. We had bases in Jordan, in Israel, in Northern Iraq, in Turkey. We had an ally on the ground in the Kurds to deal with ISIS in Syria. Look at the map: We don’t have a single base in Afghanistan. We don’t have a single base in any country bordering Afghanistan. Our allies on the ground have been hunted down. I just spoke with the remnants of the resistance two days ago. Unbelievably, they still believe in us and believe in our values and are fighting this terrorist dictatorship. But we have very little with which to help them.
What does that mean? That means, should the West get attacked again, future American soldiers are going to have to fight that much harder through billions of dollars of our own equipment with very little support. And I, for one don’t want to wait until another 9/11 or San Bernardino or Pulse Nightclub.
iF: As we come to the close … Do you have a positive word to leave us with or are we in real trouble here?
Rep. Waltz: I do actually; two things. First, whether it’s the Chinese government, the Taliban caliphate, or Putin himself, the thing they fear the most isn’t another American stealth bomber or what have you. It’s their own people. And I’ll add the Iranian regime, Cuba, and Venezuela to this list. Their ideas and their form of government and brutality doesn’t work, won’t work, will never work.
The United States needs to maintain its role as a leader in a very dangerous world. The thing that we have that they do not have are friends and allies, but they look to us for leadership. We need to get our own house in order here at home and continue to lead abroad. Alone, that’s very tough, but us plus like-minded democracies that believe in this liberal world order that has kept the world free from world wars since 1945 is my second cause for optimism.
Whether we’re facing socialism at home or Chinese communism abroad, we have to keep our eye on what has made and kept this country great. That’s one of the reasons, after getting shot at around the world for 26 years, I dove into politics – because the world I want my kids and grandkids growing up in is one led by America in line with our values.
iF: Which is scarier? Being shot at or being in politics?
Rep. Waltz: Some days I do think Afghanistan was a little simpler, and when you’re shot at, you can shoot back.
In all seriousness, as frustrated as we get and as wrong as my colleagues on the other side of the aisle may be, we are all Americans. We all are on team U.S.A. We may have very different views. And this is why I’m a big proponent of national service. National service set a baseline for leadership, teamwork, followership, discipline, but also what that flag means. And for everybody who thinks this is an awful country, I want to send them to really awful countries, and then they’ll kiss the ground when they come back and realize we may have our flaws, but it’s the best country in the world by far.
So, I’m an optimist and I’ll stay focused on the prize.
iF: That’s a great place to end this conversation. Congressman Michael Waltz, on behalf of the members of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS, thank you for an enlightening conversation.