Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with Jed Babbin by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, Thursday, November 11, 2010
ROGER ARONOFF: Our guest today is Jed Babbin, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under President George H. W. Bush, and currently a columnist for American Spectator. Today is Veterans’ Day, and Mr. Babbin has graciously joined us to discuss a number of topics, including last week’s elections, Obama’s policies toward the military, the state of conservative media, and some of his recent columns for The American Spectator—found at spectator.org. Good morning, Mr. Babbin. We’re pleased to have you here on Take AIM!
JED BABBIN: Hey, great to be with you, Roger.
ARONOFF: Before we dig in to these issues, I want to tell our listeners a bit more about your background. Jed Babbin is a former Air Force officer who, as I mentioned, served as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration. He is the best-selling author of In the Words of Our Enemies, Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe are Worse Than You Think, Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States, and, most recently, The Encounter Broadside, part of a series of pamphlets, sort of in the tradition of Thomas Paine, called How Obama is Transforming America’s Military from Superpower to Paper Tiger. He is the former editor of Human Events, the oldest conservative journal in the U.S., and has written columns for Real Clear Politics, The American Spectator, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, and National Review Online. He is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law School. We’re so happy to have you here on this Veterans’ Day. Tell us, first, what was your portfolio when you were Deputy Undersecretary of Defense?
BABBIN: I was sort of an in-house politician, trying to keep Congress a little bit calmer, and it was very interesting—not terribly successful on my part!—we were doing the acquisition side, and those were the days of the $500 toilet seat and $1,000 Thermos bottle, so we were pretty busy.
ARONOFF: I see.
BABBIN: It ended up I was talking, all too often, to people such as Barbara Boxer. I don’t miss the experience.
ARONOFF: Okay. Speaking of politics, let’s start with last week’s election. How would you characterize the results of the election? Is it a mandate? A cease-and-desist order to the Obama administration and the Democrats in both houses? What would you call it?
BABBIN: I think it’s both, really. It’s a mandate to the Republicans to change things, and it is a cease-and-desist order to the Obama administration to stop the spending spree. But, insofar as it is a mandate, I think it is one with a very short expiration date. It’s like, you buy a carton of milk, and the expiration date you don’t notice is tomorrow. The Republicans need to achieve things. The American people voted to throw out the Democrats more than to elect the Republicans, and if they don’t achieve things, the same thing’s going to happen all over again in 2012. You have a mandate to cut spending, to reduce the size of government, to get government out of our personal lives—vis à vis Obamacare and things of that nature. But if they don’t do it, if they don’t actually accomplish things, I don’t think they’re going to be rewarded by the voters in 2012.
ARONOFF: In your latest column, which can be found at spectator.org, you talk about an interview you did with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and the role that Republican governors might play in the upcoming battles over spending and the issue of federalism. Tell us: What are you suggesting might be the best course for the Republicans to follow?
BABBIN: It’s really not my suggestion. I wish I could claim credit for it, but the Sage of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, came up with the idea on the day after the election. Governor Barbour said, “Well, some of us conservative governors, who actually have cut budgets and reduced the burden, could come to Washington and, you know, not tell Congress how they have to do things, but certainly help them craft a better plan.” Governor McDonnell—I talked to him a week ago—was pretty enthusiastic about that. He’s a federalist himself, Bob McDonnell is, and he believes that we need to have a very extensive and deep debate about the Tenth Amendment. That relates back to the budget in terms of the following: The government, our government, the federal government, has acted many times, over the years, in areas which it does not belong, and Bob McDonnell’s view—and I certainly share it—is that the Congress needs to look at what the government has done in areas in which the Constitution does not call for it to act, and back the government out of those areas. There’s nothing in the Constitution that I can find which says the government ought to be buying General Motors and then saying, “Well, we’re going to produce the Chevy Volt”—which nobody wants, an electric car—“and then subsidize it with a $7,500 tax credit.” I think those are the kinds of things that Bob McDonnell and Haley Barbour are thinking about, and, quite frankly, I’m hopeful that the Republican leaders are wise enough to get those guys into town. Quite frankly—let me take a step back from that, Roger. Forgive me for talking so long. The big problem the Republicans have right now, in terms of cutting the deficit and reducing the burden of government, is, they’ve got about six different plans. You’ve got the Pledge to America, which Mr. Boehner and company came out with. You’ve got Eric Cantor’s [Paul Ryan’s] Roadmap for America. You’ve got the Heritage Foundation’s plan. You’ve got the Free Congress Foundation’s plan—which is very solid, by the way. What you need to do, what Congress needs to do, is get Haley Barbour and Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell and a couple of other guys—maybe Rick Perry—into town, go to a nice closed-door meeting, and not come out until they can agree on a plan. If the Democrats have the opportunity, they’ll divide and conquer again. The Democrats always succeed—one of the reasons they succeed is because they come up with one plan they all agree on, and then they go charging forward on it. The Republicans can’t win, they can’t make changes, unless they at least agree amongst themselves what the heck they want to do. So get the governors in, go into a gloriously smoke-filled room, and don’t come out until you can agree on a plan. That’s what I would suggest.
ARONOFF: And as of yesterday, there’s another plan that’s on the table that I think caught a lot of people by surprise, and that’s from the President’s Deficit Commission. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles came out and, though they weren’t speaking for the entire eighteen-person commission, they laid out a plan that, frankly, most conservatives that I’ve talked to generally like. If you’ve watched any of MSNBC last night, they were ready to start a revolution, and felt that Obama had really made a major blunder that was going to be hard to walk back from. What is your initial reaction to their announcement? What are the implications, both politically and economically?
BABBIN: I think their announcement is little more than a trial balloon. You have a situation where the Debt Commission is coming up with, pretty much, across-the-board cuts, including to defense, they’re basically planning to raise taxes to do what needs to be done to balance the budget—but I think that’s the wrong way to go. You can’t—when the housing market now, I think, is depressed to a degree it hasn’t been in 40 or 50 years—do away with the mortgage interest deduction. You have to go about cutting back the government, and they have not been really bold enough—I mean, they’re not bold at all—in terms of cutting back federal spending. That’s the answer. Raising taxes is not the answer. Cutting the government’s appetite for our money is the answer. And we have to do that—we have to cut back Social Security, we have to cut back Medicaid, and we have to cut back all of these unfunded mandates to the states. When I talked to Governor McDonnell last week, he was saying, “Look: If we don’t get Medicaid under control, it’s going to bankrupt Virginia in ten or twenty years.” So these things have to be looked at, they have to be cut back, and we have to get to a point where we’re not going to be asking the government to do everything for us, and dominating our economy so much.
ARONOFF: Let’s go to another topic. Today is Veterans’ Day. As a veteran yourself, and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, what memories and emotions are most prominent for you on this day?
BABBIN: I’ve never seen combat. I served in the Air Force, but the worst combat injury I ever suffered was a paper cut. My memories really are some of the stories I heard from my dad. He was a World War II Mud Marine and saw action on, oh, so many places—Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima—and he didn’t want to talk about it a lot. But the sheer enormity of the commitment that people have to make—I have a number of friends, now, who are on active duty, Special Forces folks—and what they do, pretty much every day, is, to me, above and beyond the call of duty—but it’s just routine for these folks. They put their lives on the line. They are first-class intellects, most of them, and they put their brains and their bodies in the line of fire routinely for us. I think we have to understand that we have a duty to them, and owe an obligation to them, that, really, is limitless. When I hear about plans—Secretary Gates is voicing to cut back military pay, to reduce the cost of military health care—I’m just, frankly, appalled. There are an awful lot of things in this government that need to be cut, and need to be cut massively, but the debt that we owe to our veterans—the combat veterans, the trigger-pullers—those are the guys we need to support, and that burden is one we should bear proudly.
ARONOFF: You mentioned some of these concerns, and in your Broadside that I mentioned earlier—again, called How Obama is Transforming America’s Military from Superpower to Paper Tiger—what is the argument you’re making? How concerned should we be?
BABBIN: We should be very concerned. The argument I’m making is, principally, this: We have a constant flow of technology that has to be paid for, has to be developed. It has to be flowing into our military system. You have a Secretary of Defense who abhors what he calls “Next War-itis.” Mr. Obama and Secretary Gates are reducing our investment in future weapon systems that are necessary to provide our troops with the technological edge that they need. We can’t send them into battle without giving them every support, and that means giving them the very best tools we can come up with—and we can come up with some pretty good stuff! The second point that I’m making is that Obama and company, because they are basically saying that we’ll never fight another conventional war, are tilting our capabilities away from that particular capability. Who’s to say? I don’t believe that we’ve seen the end of conventional war. I look at what China is developing, a hell-for-leather build-up in their military structure. I look at what happens in the Middle East, and with Iran and other nations there. I believe that conventional war capabilities are things that we have to have, and that goes into other areas, also, in unconventional war. Cyber-warfare—we now get thousands of cyber attacks a day against our intelligence, military, and industrial infrastructure, and we have to be very aggressive in not only defending that, but, quite frankly, in coming up with the capability and operational doctrine to have the offensive capability in that area that we need. I’m told by my sources that, although we have a very good defensive capability, which is evolving, it’s not as coordinated as it should be, and we do not have an offensive doctrine at all. I don’t understand how we can go through the life of this country for much longer without having the ability and, quite frankly, undertaking offensive cyber-warfare operations.
ARONOFF: As far as a defensive doctrine, which is somewhat incorporated into the so-called “New START” Treaty, what are your thoughts on that? First of all, how does this play into it, the new treaty, and do you see him getting the two-thirds vote necessary to ratify that treaty?
BABBIN: I don’t think that treaty’s going to be ratified for a lot of reasons, the first and foremost of which is, it leaves blanks in the treaty. The way in which the treaty is going to be administered, the actual burdens on each of the signatories to reduce their nuclear arsenals and nuclear development in the future, is all left to future negotiation. I think there are enough Senators up there saying, “Hey, I’m not going to sign a blank check—I want to know what goes in those blanks before I sign on to anything!” The other question really comes down to not so much a reduction in our nuclear arsenal—quite frankly, we probably can reduce it to some degree. I think, in rough order of magnitude, we probably have something like 7,500 warheads out there, but the problem is, we haven’t conducted a nuclear test in at least two decades. So we don’t know if they work. Likely is, they will, but you can rely on computer models only so much. What we need to be doing is renewing the structure, and it’s part of the structure of our military that the Obama administration is willfully relegating to the basement. We need to take a look at what we’ve got, we need to make sure it works, we need to make sure that we have the adequate delivery methods and means of those things—Lord only knows what can happen if, for example, the Iranians have nuclear weapons. One of the things that troubles me, in addition to that, about the treaty, is the reduction in the so-called “delivery vehicles.” There is a massive, massive slashing of the permissible number of delivery vehicles, and it might result in the retirement of not only a lot of ICBMs, but also of cruise missiles, aircraft which are nuclear-capable, and a whole variety of other weapons systems—bomber aircraft. We have an aging arsenal in ships, in delivery methods, in missiles, in aircraft, and some attrition’s going to take place, but, again—I’m going in a circle here—because it goes back to the question of developing new weapons. If you have, for example, a nuclear weapon that could be mounted on an F-16—now, our F-16s are getting an awful lot of use, and are not being replaced quickly enough, or well enough, by the new aircraft coming on—how many of those things are we going to have to retire to meet this treaty? I think all of that needs to be examined, and examined very closely, before anybody votes on this. I don’t think this is going to go through in a lame-duck session. My sources on the Hill tells me that nothing controversial is going to go through in the couple of weeks that they’re going to be in later this month. So I think that there’s not a lot of danger that this thing’s going to be acted upon. But before anybody votes on it in the Senate, they ought to have some extensive hearings, and really get to the bottom of what this thing is going to do.
ARONOFF: How about the war in Afghanistan, the so-called “War on Terror” in general? Obama’s defenders make the argument that he’s doubled-down in Afghanistan, he’s used drones more frequently than the Bush administration to go after al-Qaeda terrorists. Does he deserve some credit for how he has fought the war against al-Qaeda?
BABBIN: No, because Mr. Obama is simply taking the mistakes that George Bush made, and doubling down on them. I wrote a column on 9/11/2001 which was in The Washington Times the following day, and in that column I said that our enemy is the nations that sponsor terrorism. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve been fighting proxy wars. The people who sponsor terrorism have paid no price for doing so, and, regardless of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, when we withdraw, the terrorists will go back in. You see that already in Iraq. There are massive attacks in Iraq, quite a few of them over the past two weeks taking hundreds of casualties. This is in direct proportion to our withdrawal. I’m not saying we should stay in Iraq—I believe we should withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as our little feet will carry us out of there—but the basic point is, the nations that sponsor terrorism—Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, a number of others—have to be made to get out of that business. You can do that economically, diplomatically—and militarily. I don’t think we should invade Iran, but I think we should make life so difficult on them that they can’t sponsor terrorism anymore. And we can do that. Trust me—we can do that.
ARONOFF: The latest reports on Afghanistan are that they’re already changing the expectations, and now talking about being there through the end of 2014, which, I think, is going to be a surprise and a disappointment both to his base and to the other side, to the opposition, as well. Did you see that report? What do you think of that?
BABBIN: I’m following that very closely. The basic problem we have is that the war in Afghanistan is not going well. We have committed more troops there, but to what end? Again, we’re fighting the proxy of Iran in Afghanistan, and the proxy, also, of parts of the Pakistani government. The Taliban are coming and going. They’re very slippery. We can kill enough of them to reduce their capability, but that capability is being reduced at one point and replenished at another. I don’t believe that President Obama will change the course there. I think he’s going to start withdrawing troops in 2011, and, as I said earlier, that may be too late to even do that.
What we need to be doing is focusing on the war in the proper terms. We have not defined our enemy correctly. We have not defined this both as a kinetic and an ideological war, which we should have done. We have not fought the ideological half of this war at all. We have to do what is right for America, and what is right is to redefine the war, to find the sponsors of terrorism and get them out of that business, and, also, to take on the ideological war. Let’s face it: Islam is not only a religion, Islam is an ideology, and radical Islam is hegemonistic. It is violent—it provides a blanket declaration of war against our culture. And we need to be defending that—we need to be attacking the ideology. George Bush didn’t want to do that, and Barack Obama is, quite frankly, surrendering that part of the war preemptively. So I believe we have to redo our thinking very significantly in order to win this war.
ARONOFF: In one of the press conferences Obama gave over in Asia this week, he said that our goal regarding China is not to contain it, that it is in our interest for China to succeed and prosper, and Hillary Clinton recently said something similar, that our goal is not to contain them. You’ve written a book about China. How do you view China in terms of a threat to our economy and our national security? Should we be trying to contain it?
BABBIN: I’ll answer the last part first—yes, we have to contain China. What we have to understand is, we are now engaged in, effectively, the Second Cold War—with China. China is expansionist and hegemonistic. They are building their military with a view towards excluding our military from their areas of operation. They’re developing weapons very specifically to attack and defeat American aircraft carriers. Their anti-submarine warfare capabilities are growing. And their cyber-war capability is enormous. It is, probably, much more advanced than ours, and, quite frankly, we are suffering attacks from China every day in the cyber-war area. The long and the short of it is, China has to be contained. They are, of course, our banker, though, and, at this point, they have enormous leverage against us. If you look at the past 50 years, and how much leverage the Saudis have had over us—which has precluded us from taking action against Saudi Arabia in terms of its own sponsorship of terrorism—how much leverage will China have over us? Because, quite frankly, if they call in our debt, we’re broke.
At this point, Barack Obama has borrowed so much from China that we really dare not even criticize them. So, at this point, we have to reassess our relationship with China. National security and our economy are inseparable in this regard, and we have to take action that is going to take that pressure off of our foreign policy. Barack Obama won’t do it. I don’t know how much damage he can do—this is another important point, Roger: I think the House being run by the Republicans, from January, for the next two years, is going to prevent Obama from accomplishing more of his domestic agenda, but Congress can’t stop him from doing really harmful things in the international arena, and I think that Mr. Obama’s agenda, quite frankly, to take us down from superpower status, will be very, very dangerous, and Congressional Republicans are going to have to work very hard to try to contain what Obama is doing. We need to try to contain China. We need to fix our relationship with Saudi Arabia. None of that’s going to get better in the next two years because Barack Obama’s going to make it worse.
ARONOFF: Just a few more minutes, so I want to cover a few things pretty quickly here. One: I wanted to talk about your book. I’m not going to get to much as I wanted to, but In the Words of Our Enemies, when it came out in 2007, was just—I was stunned by the collection of quotes from people like Vladimir Putin and Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, threatening really serious harm to this country. When it’s put all together like that, it really has a stunning impact. I had planned to read a couple, but instead I just want to ask you: Have our enemies become even more emboldened since then? If you were writing the book today, the new material you would have to pick from . . . ?
BABBIN: Oh, yes. If I were writing that book today, it would look more like the Encyclopedia Britannica than a relatively short book. I mean, there’s so much out there. The whole point of this book, Roger, is that there are bad people out there, they do mean us harm, there are nations that are our enemies, and we should take them at their word. Instead of trying to psychoanalyze these folks, let’s just take their word and act accordingly. When Hugo Chavez threatens the use of oil as a weapon against the United States, we ought to take that seriously. When the Saudi preachers, the imams, and the main mosques in Riyadh are chanting “Death to the West!” we need to take that seriously, and we haven’t. Again, it’s really just a matter of listening rather than just hearing, reading and understanding rather than just looking. What we have to do is to get serious about analyzing the adversaries we have in the world and really, again, taking them at their word. I hope this is more reference book than something someone’s going to pick up and just read, but it’s something that people could and should use as a reference tool. If you read something in the newspaper about what Vladimir Putin is doing and, Oh, ha, ha, he’s going off and racing a Formula One car, pick it up and look at how he takes his relationship with Iran as a partnership. Look at what he says about how America should not be dominant in any respect, how that the world needs another superpower—of course meaning Russia. When you look at some of these other folks—there are just so many of them I have in the book—it really should be a context for people to understand what the world is really doing. And again, buy the book, and if you have a question about what someone in the newspaper is saying—Ahmadinejad or whomever—look it up in the book, and see what this guy is really saying—and make a judgment for yourself.
ARONOFF: I also wanted to get into—we’re going to have to skip this because I have one final question for you—your other book, Inside the Asylum, about the U.N. I would highly recommend that one for people, too, to just to see what’s going on there and how things are going there. But for the last question I want to talk about the media. As someone who has edited Human Events and written for most of the other major conservative publications, what is the current state of the media? How strong is the conservative press? How liberal is the mainstream media? What are you pleased with? What are your concerns?
BABBIN: Well, I’m pleased with the proliferation of conservative media. I’m obviously in agreement with you that the mainstream media is—and always will be, apparently—liberal, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost comical in its liberalism. I mean, anybody who watches Keith Olbermann really ought to be checking themselves in for some sort of mental examination. But if you look at what the conservative media should be doing and are not doing, it’s probably just as important, if not more so. Back in the day, when I was growing up, I was reading an awful lot of things—National Review and others—and there was an evolution of conservative thought. People were talking about different theories and debating them and pushing conservative thought into the future. That’s what the conservative media is not doing right now. It very much needs to be done, and I’m hopeful that there are going to be ways to do that in the near future.
ARONOFF: Our guest has been Jed Babbin, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, author of numerous books, and currently a columnist whose work can be found at spectator.org. Look him up on Amazon.com—and you will find all of his books available. Jed, thanks so much for taking time to be with us today, on this Veterans’ Day, on Take AIM.
BABBIN: Hey, my pleasure!