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Congressman Seth Moulton Delivers Foreign Policy Address at Atlantic Council

February 2nd, 2016

Moulton Speaks about the Opportunity to Reposition U.S. in 2017

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) delivered a foreign policy address at the Atlantic Council as part of  the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s flagship series, “America’s Role in the World.” In his speech, “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: American Foreign Policy for the Next President,”Moulton spoke about the need to reaffirm relationships with our allies and counter our adversaries. Mouton’s prepared remarks are below and a link to the video can be viewed here.


Remarks as Prepared:

Thank you, Honorable Ellen Tauscher, the Atlantic Council and Scowcroft Center for hosting me — it’s an honor. And thanks to all of you for welcoming this dialogue. I look forward to your questions and comments after my remarks, so please don’t be shy.

The world is more complicated, and changing more rapidly, than ever before. But one thing must remain the same: the need for strong American leadership.

Regardless of your view on President Obama’s leadership, Congressional troublemaking, and the increasingly vitriolic 2016 Presidential campaign, there is no question that today, in 2016, many of our allies feel concerned, and many of our enemies feel emboldened. We have a chance for a reset in January 2017, and we need to take advantage of that opportunity to ensure the U.S. is well positioned for both the challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.

The best way to do that can be summed up in a phrase that became the motto of the 1st Marine Division in which I served in under Gen. James Mattis — “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.” In America, you will find no better friend, and in America, you will find no worse enemy.

So let’s talk about “no better friend” first. We are at our best when we act with our allies to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. We all know this from history, and I have seen it on the ground in Iraq where I served alongside British, Polish, and Iraqi troops. Working with our coalition partners wasn’t always easy, but it was far better that they were there. Working with our allies gives us strength, leverage to do more than we have the capacity to do on our own and, importantly, it gives us credibility.

Standing here at the Atlantic Council, founded just over a decade after the Second World War with a mission of “fostering and encouraging the cooperation between North America and Europe,” I can’t overstate the importance of our ongoing relationships with our closest allies including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other European allies with whom we share unprecedented common history, culture, values, and commitment to ideals. Even our closest friendships will suffer if not regularly reaffirmed.

In Eastern Europe, we supported countries as they democratized after the fall of the Soviet Union and we must continue to support them in the face of Russian aggression. When I visited Eastern Europe last year, together with the chair of the Armed Services Committee, we could feel the concerns — dare I say, fear — of Russia among the Eastern European officials we met. Hearing stories of Polish citizens lining the roads as American tanks rolled in to train, and saying, “We’ve been waiting seventy-five years for the Americans to come,” was powerful.

Some of the Polish troops I served with and befriended in Iraq used to joke about their low morale, but the Polish troops we met on this trip were incredibly enthusiastic to be training with Americans. And the American generals eagerly detailed their plans to survey bridges in Eastern Europe to extend, further east, their 1950s plans to counter a Red Army invasion.

While we’re executing tank drills and surveying bridges, the Russian Army is conducting cutting-edge hybrid warfare to counter NATO’s influence. They’re initiating daily cyber-attacks against our NATO allies, undermining their political leaders with sophisticated propaganda, and recruiting local support through their version of Voice of America. We need to provide more than tank parades and 50-year-old strategy to counter a rapidly innovating Russian threat.

In the Middle East, as we face the barbarity and depravity that is ISIS, a changing Iran, and the heart of the Arab world in flux, we must engage more deeply with our allies and make it clear the U.S. has no intention of abandoning the region at perhaps its most pivotal moment in centuries. We must remain committed to our closest partner in the region, Israel, with whom we share deep political, social, cultural, and economic ties. At the same time, our Arab allies are best positioned to be at the forefront of the fight against ISIS, and we must intensify coordination and regional diplomacy with our allies in the Gulf and Levant.

When I was in Israel last summer, we heard from a veteran journalist who said, “America will be hated for doing too much in the Middle East, and America will be hated for doing too little. You should always do too much.” It resonated with an answer I received from President Ghani to a question I posed to him in Kabul in February. I was on the first Congressional delegation to meet with the new president, and he talked optimistically about organizing an Arab coalition to take on ISIS. He might as well have told our small bipartisan team of U.S. congressmen that he was making an anonymous donation to the U.S. Treasury — it was music to our ears. So I asked him, “Mr. President, what can the U.S. do to support you — and maybe, I said, the best thing we can do is to get out of the way.” To that, he responded, “Absolutely not. Whether you like it or not,” he continued, “the U.S. Fifth Fleet is the only thing holding the situation together, and even if it’s just telling people to come to the table, U.S. leadership is needed.” We need to provide that leadership and that continuous, heavily-engaged diplomatic presence to our allies in the Middle East.

Third, in East Asia, we have enormous interests — not only economic but political — and China is our only true geopolitical peer. China will continue to grow and expand its influence in the region and in emerging markets across the world. We must show our commitment to our long-standing treaty allies — Japan and Taiwan through strengthened commercial and defense ties as we work to deepen our relationships with the thriving economies of ASEAN who find themselves looking for U.S. leadership in the face of often one-sided Chinese engagement.

Those are three ways, in Europe, the Middle East, and in East Asia, that the United States can be a better friend to our allies. Simultaneously, we must match the depth of commitment we have to allies with our depth of commitment to defeating our enemies.

First, this means defeating ISIS. ISIS is a national security threat to the United States, and so we must have a serious, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. Doing so requires a whole-of-government approach, and as a Marine infantry veteran who found himself doing a lot of reconstruction work in Iraq that should have been handled by the State Department, I will say upfront that this comprehensive strategy must be guided and underpinned by a political and diplomatic plan to ensure the peace. This was the huge mistake we made after we left Iraq — disengaging politically, and thereby allowing a political vacuum to develop in Iraq that ISIS swept in to occupy.

As a veteran of the Surge, where I saw many young Americans killed and wounded in a heroic effort to turn that misguided war around, it was hard to return to Baghdad as a Member of Congress and see so much of what we had fought for — and achieved — during the surge, gone to waste. Now, under the President who vowed to pull us out of Iraq, we’ve sent Americans back in just five years after we left. We must not repeat this mistake again — not again in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, and not with whatever we do in Syria. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan and to many of our surrounding Middle Eastern bases, and I have reasonable confidence in our military plans to defeat ISIS. But I still do not have confidence in our diplomatic plans to ensure the peace — to ensure that, after our troops do their job, we won’t find the next ISIS emerging to occupy a new political vacuum left in our wake.

Our political plans must guide our military effort, not the other way around as is the case today. I was particularly shocked to receive several briefings from our commanders in the Middle East that contained phases I-III of a military operation but nothing about phase IV, reconstruction and stability operations — as if this wasn’t perhaps the single biggest lesson we learned from the Iraq invasion in 2003.

A serious political plan means well-defined political goals in both Iraq and Syria and a diplomatic plan to ensure their success both in concert with military action and following on from it. And this must all begin with much more serious engagement from our State Department. Ambassador Crocker, the rightly celebrated co-lead of the Surge with General Petraeus, has suggested that Secretary Kerry begin by spending two weeks in Baghdad himself. Regardless of whether or not the Secretary does that this year, our next Secretary should.

At a high level, these political plans should support the Abadi government in Iraq, they should give more power to the Sunnis, and they should counter Iranian influence. The Iraqi government should be more federalist, but I am personally not of the belief that splitting up the country will improve things. I would rather have Iraqi politicians bickering over oil revenues in Parliament than fighting over borders in the Iraqi desert. While I don’t claim to be a diplomatic expert, I would be happy to explore these specifics in greater detail. But the key point is that we must have a clear plan. And, everyone in our counter-ISIS effort, whether a social media hacker in Maryland or a Special Forces captain outside Mosul must understand this plan clearly and it must guide all of our efforts.

And foundational to this mission must be developing Sunni-backed local forces to hold the peace. This will be difficult, this will be frustrating, but it’s the only way to ensure lasting success in the parts of Iraq ISIS threatens or controls. It would be more convenient in the short-term to arm the Kurds because they are great and trustworthy fighters. It would be more convenient in the short-term to employ the Shiite militias because they are already organized and equipped. But the only way to make this work in the end is with Sunni forces who believe in the mission, are empowered to succeed, and have a stake in the political future of their country.

In Syria, one of the most complex, destructive civil wars the world has ever seen continues to devastate the country, killing hundreds of thousands and creating over 12 million refugees. Syria is more complicated than Iraq — and related to what we do there as well, of course — but the principle remains the same: A serious political and diplomatic strategy must underpin and guide our military actions, and I don’t think we’ve had that for some time. For example, if you listen to what the Administration has been saying, it sounds like they are planning for a diplomatic transition from Asaad’s leadership; yet by arming various opposition groups without a clear and coherent plan for what they will do, you would think they are pushing for overthrowing the Asaad government militarily. It’s an incoherent strategy.

And it’s worth pointing out here, as much as it pains me to do so, that Russia is doing much better on this count. Every eighteen year-old Russian kid from Kursk knows his country’s strategic, political plan in Syria — the mission that he is ultimately fighting to support. It is to keep Asaad in power. It’s a terrible mission that is fundamentally opposed, not only to our goals in Syria, but to their own. But, regardless of the wisdom of the mission, the point is that their mission is clear. I’m afraid ours is not. Any U.S. troops that play a role in training or partnering with these forces must be given a clear mission, to include a clear political end state, and the resources and commitment to win.

The principal task must be redoubling efforts recently revived by Secretary Kerry and the contact group in Geneva and organizing a political transition from the Assad regime. This may well require organizing a stronger opposition — not just training and equipping them militarily, but organizing them politically. Overthrowing the regime militarily has simply not worked to date despite military assistance to the opposition.

As in Iraq, the only way to ensure such a transition is lasting — both politically and militarily — is to ensure we have Sunni-backed local forces to hold the peace.

Second, beyond the Middle East and the critical turning point Iraq and Syria both face, we must stand up to Russian aggression and its efforts to flout the basic tenants of international conduct.

Churchill famously declared Russia a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key — that key is the Russian national interest.” Much has changed since Churchill’s time but some things have not. The U.S. and our allies continue to work with Russia when those interests converge, but increasingly they do not.

When Russia works with us on international problems, it is easier to resolve them. Russia worked with the U.S. on the Iran deal; without Russian assistance shipping out Iranian uranium stocks and pressure on Iran to accept the deal in its final hours, the historic nuclear agreement may not have happened.

But often in Syria, in Europe and other areas, Russia has not worked with the international community and continues to violate sovereign borders, flout international law and ignore basic human rights.

In Ukraine, Russia’s former client government collapsed under pressure from citizens yearning for greater engagement with Europe and modernization that Russia could not provide. In Syria, Russia continues to support the brutal Assad regime, clinging to vestiges of its only surviving Middle Eastern client. Its haphazard intervention meant to benefit the Assad regime has targeted opposition groups (not ISIS) which often stand the best chance of making gains against the regime and defending civilians against the horrific violence of regime onslaughts.

Contrary to popular belief, Russia is not operating from a position of strength. Much to the contrary, this is a country in decline, desperately seeking to restore vestiges of its past glory. Inflation continues with the ruble whipsawing violently — in 2015 alone it lost half its value against the dollar. Sanctions plague Russia’s financial sector, costing it as much as 1.5 percent of GDP. And, its heavy, outmoded reliance on oil as a principal source of state revenue at a time when prices are at an all-time low jeopardizes its strength.

Russia’s desperate situation is precisely what makes it so dangerous — and precisely what should concern us here in the U.S. — an emboldened President Putin increasingly driven towards rash, short term calculations. Without a proactive, effective strategy to meet Russia on the advanced battlefield of hybrid warfare and counter President Putin’s whole-of-government strategy against NATO, Russian influence will only continue to grow despite their fundamental economic weakness.

Finally, along with defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and countering Russia’s aggressive expansionism, the next administration must work to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions while ensuring effective implementation of the nuclear deal.

I supported the nuclear deal with Iran because it is the best option we have available today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Since the conclusion of the deal, a number of prominent foreign policy and defense leaders have recognized its significance, including Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, as well as over 50 former high-level U.S. diplomats and senior military leaders. Even the current Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot characterized the deal as an ‘historic opportunity.”

Recently, the U.S. and international community have verified that Iran has taken preliminary steps necessary to fulfill its obligations under the terms of the deal.

But at the same time, Iran has fired off ballistic missiles in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. They continue to finance international terrorism, support our enemies and oppose our allies. American troops that I served with in Iraq we killed by Iran and Iranian weapons. Let me be clear, the Iran Nuclear Deal is an important step towards preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But Iran remains our enemy and the deal will only be effective if it is strongly enforced.

That’s why I, along with Republican Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, recently introduced a bipartisan resolution mapping out an effective path forward for the U.S. and international community for the months and years to come.

This resolution first calls on the President, Congress, and international partners to ensure the IAEA, the State Department and the Treasury Department have the tools necessary to make sure we are inspecting and implementing the deal to the strictest, fullest extent possible.

Second, the resolution urges the President to reaffirm our relationship with Israel and support our closest ally in the region with the tools it needs to defend itself. This means continued intelligence and counterterrorism support to maintain Israel’s safety against Iranian-funded groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as well as support for increased funding for Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems. It also urges the President to act now to finalize a new ten-year Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel.

Third, my resolution calls on the President and the international community to remain committed to countering Iran’s harmful actions throughout the Middle East and across the world. While at a state-level, Iran continues to fund and support the brutal Assad regime in Syria, militant activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as Syria, it also supports individual terrorist actors in efforts against the U.S. and its allies. We have engaged with Iran diplomatically to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapon but we shouldn’t have any illusions about their other activities in the region. Just last month, an Iranian funded and supplied militia kidnapped 3 American contractors in Iraq.

That’s why I am calling on the President to act at the UN Security Council in response to the recent Iranian ballistic missile tests and act to ensure the U.S. and our allies in the region increase efforts to counter Iranian support to forces seeking to destabilize the region.

Just within the context of our relationship with Iran we can see how “no better friend, no worse enemy” can be effectively employed. Where Iran is compliant, we uphold our diplomatic commitments without compromise; where they continue to flout international agreements outside the nuclear deal, supporting international terrorism and threatening us and our allies, we will stand strongly against them.

Countering Iran’s destabilizing actions, standing up to Russia’s aggressive expansionism, and defeating ISIS with a comprehensive military andpolitical strategy for Iraq and Syria — these are three principal places where our adversaries must have no doubt that we are unwavering in our commitment to stand strong against them.

As we move to re-set in January 2017, and take advantage of this turning point to strengthen our commitments to our allies and pursue a more comprehensive strategy to confronting our enemies, we must ensure we have the tools to do so. We simply can’t face the challenges and the threats of 21st century with a 20th century toolbox. This means reforming how our government uses the three critical levers at its disposal in foreign policy — defense, diplomacy, and development.

First, we can’t address any of the threats I described — or effectively work with our allies — if our Defense Department is still mired in 20th century ways of thinking and doing business. In order to do so, the Department must aggressively move forward on serious acquisition reform. Only by updating and making acquisition processes more agile can we provide our servicemembers and military planners the tools they need to effectively counter the threats I outlined. Acquisition reform is also needed to prevent repeat episodes of wasted time and money on troublesome projects like the LCS and the F-35. Bringing the Pentagon fully into the 21st century also means doubling down on the Third Offset Strategy and capitalizing on areas where the U.S. has a decided advantage over even our most advanced adversaries. This includes next generation robotics and system autonomy, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing. Finally, our defense and intelligence community must accelerate cooperation on a new, comprehensive cyber warfare policy. In years to come, the cyber domain will remain highly contested, with our adversaries seeking to exploit U.S. government and private sector vulnerabilities. Unless we more fully integrate the efforts of CYBERCOM, the service branches and the intelligence community, I am concerned we are vulnerable to the same ‘stove-piping’ the 9/11 Commission identified as so problematic to our counter-terrorism bureaucracy.

Before I ran for Congress, I had a job as the managing director of Texas Central Railway, a high-speed rail project privately funded down in Dallas. I had this great office, this corner office on the 42nd floor in downtown Dallas and I looked out at the AT&T world headquarters across the street. I had an AT&T cell phone and I dropped on average three or four calls a day while looking out at the world headquarters. What’s the one thing you didn’t see on the world headquarters? Cell towers. They must know they cause cancer, that’s my theory. But in any event, it was extremely frustrating. I would stand there with my AT&T cell phone looking straight out at the top of their building dropping my calls.

I used to think gosh it would be great to have one of those rockets I used to have in my Marine platoon. But here’s the thing, if the Chinese felt the same way and they were to send a squad of the Chinese army to shoot a rocket at the AT&T headquarters building, we would know exactly how we would respond as a country. But if instead the Chinese military decides to attack that headquarters through the internet, to take the personal data of everybody in this room and across the country who has an AT&T cell phone, I don’t think we even know who would be in charge of the response. Is that the Department of Homeland Security, is it NSA, is it the Department of Defense? We have some fundamental work to do — before we even get to the details of resourcing certain programs over others — in terms of our cyber warfare policy.

While our military tools are an important element of working with allies and standing up to our adversaries, our diplomatic toolbox is just as important as our defense toolbox in confronting the world’s most complex challenges. Many of these challenges are at their root political problems where military means are often a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution. Recently, we have seen the fruits of tough diplomacy in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, in turning a corner with Cuba and ending a failed, Cold War era policy, and in removing Syria’s declare stocks of chemical weapons.

Unfortunately, despite these gains, there are those in Congress who advocate cutting the State Department’s budget at every opportunity and advocate a smaller role for our diplomats in solving these problems. Reforming our diplomatic toolbox not only means sufficiently funding our diplomatic efforts, it also means directing and enabling our diplomats to engage with a wide-variety of actors in all corners of the world. I greatly respect former Ambassador Ryan Crocker who often speaks of ‘expeditionary diplomacy’ — this is the idea that despite the risks involved, our diplomats must lead from the front, be engaged in the field, and actively partner with our military.

Finally, we cannot discount the importance of international aid in our development toolbox for addressing drivers of conflict and root causes of extremism. I saw firsthand in Iraq how important the provisioning of basic services and economic livelihood was to turning the corner in public sentiment against militant groups and those that seek violence as an end. In fact, after leading one of the first platoons into Baghdad as an infantry officer, I suddenly found myself in charge of a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper. Although I was totally untrained for it, this was important development work in post-invasion Iraq. Incidentally, this was also work the State Department should have been empowered to do itself.

Today, we still face many of these same challenges — in Afghanistan as popular support for the National Unity government wavers and reconstruction efforts wane in rural provinces — in Iraq where Sunnis still have trouble receiving the basic services and support a government is meant to provide — and most of all in Syria where the existence of a state structure and the most basic semblance of order has long ceased. In these and other areas of the world, including Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, USAID and multilateral development partners must be part of the solution. Only be weaving together the levers of defense, diplomacy and development can the U.S. effectively tackle the challenges it will face in years to come.

As we look to 2017, and a new leader in the White House, we have an opportunity to reposition ourselves in the world. We must continue to use all the tools available to us — diplomacy must be smart and tough, our defense department must be cutting edge, and our development efforts must be used strategically. America is an indispensible global leader and the world will be a safer place if everybody knows — from our closest allies to our fiercest foes — that there is no better friend and no worse enemy than the United States of America.

Thank you.

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