Talking with Rep. Adam Smith, Part I: Pres. Biden, January 6 and More

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17 mins read

This is a two-part series. Part 2 will be published Wednesday, April 28.

With the 117th Congress recently passing its 100-day mark and the Biden administration nearing the same milestone, the Indivisible movement in Washington has been holding a series of town halls with the state’s Congressional delegation to get their assessment of what’s been accomplished thus far and to discuss what may be possible going forward. 

Congressman Adam Smith has represented Washington’s 9th congressional district since being elected in 1996. He’s the chair of the House Armed Services Committee and is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the Medicare for All Caucus, among others.

On Saturday, April 17, Congressman Smith sat down with moderator Stephan Cox, host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, for a wide-ranging discussion on foreign policy, infrastructure, democracy reform, and much more.

This article was edited for length and clarity. 

Stephan Cox: As we near the 100-day mark of President Biden’s administration, have you been surprised by what many see as his move to the left on policy?

Adam Smith: No, I really haven’t. He’s done about what he said he was going to do when he was campaigning. I think he is leading with great clarity and honesty through a very difficult time. Many moons ago I read a book called What It Takes that followed the presidential campaign trail in 1988, the first time Joe Biden ran for president. Biden emerged there as a guy who passionately believes in equality of opportunity and that America has a lot of work to do to achieve it; someone who remembers his blue-collar roots and what he had to do to get opportunities in life. He feels very strongly that we have to help others get there. I’m forgetting the exact line he used, but Biden campaigned then by saying that too much of America was content to say, “OK, I got mine, so now I don’t need to care about anybody else.” Biden has been very consistent with this message.

SC: Biden has always seemed to track to the center of American politics, to find our middle ground. I wonder if you feel that his shift to the left is in any way reflective of where we are as a country right now.

AS: Absolutely. First and foremost, Biden is a legislator. He wants to get things done. He’s not just about the rhetoric, he’s about the accomplishments. And with the pandemic, economic inequality, equity and social justice issues, and gun violence, he understands that you need to do what the people are asking for. He’s got a keen sense for that.

SC: I asked you last year if you thought that the world — and specifically our allies — would view Trump as an aberration, or if they would not trust us after Trump. Recently you said that we need to overcome the “perception of our own incompetence.” I wonder if you could expand on that. 

AS: I think there was considerable concern around the world about Trump and his daily dishonesty. But now the coronavirus vaccine gives us a great opportunity to rebuild trust as we work on distributing it throughout the world and demonstrating its effectiveness. The January 6 riot at the Capitol made it look like we were incapable of the basics of representative democracy. These first hundred days have been really important. We passed the Covid-19 relief package. We are doing the basics of governing in a much more effective way. And we are showing that we want to be part of the world. You have to earn trust. We have to work to get it back. If we continue on the path Biden has set out, I think we will find more partners in the world. We’ll be better able to work together to confront the challenges of inequality and climate change, terrorism … whatever the challenges are, we’ll be better able to deal with them collectively.

We’re already talking about getting Iran back to the table on the nuclear arms deal and stepping up efforts to combat climate change. And the president is pulling us out of Afghanistan. It is not only the fact of this exit that is important but the way that Biden approached it. He didn’t announce it in a tweet. He sent the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State to Brussels, where they sat down with our NATO allies. They came up with a joint statement of agreement. Biden is showing that we are (a) willing to lead and (b) willing to work together.

SC: You’ve said that you agree with Biden’s decision to pull the military out of Afghanistan. Do you feel that there was ever going to be an ideal scenario for this exit?

AS: No, there wasn’t. This is an argument that I’ve been making for two or three years now. People kept saying, “I’m with you, but withdrawal has to be conditions based.” But what did that mean when you dug down into it? “Conditions-based” basically meant that Afghanistan would need to have a peaceful, stable government that would remain so after we left. But that was not going to happen. Afghanistan has a deep history and a lot of issues beyond the presence of the Taliban. There are different tribes, distrust of the government … ISIS is present there now. But even apart from that, the idea that our military can force a solution on another country is simply wrong. Afghanistan is going to be a violent, unsettled place for some time, and our troops are not going to change that. I hope that Afghanistan has taught us a lesson about foreign policy engagement.

SC: A number of analysts are saying that Biden’s move out of Afghanistan may signal a real paradigm shift. Heather Cox Richardson recently said that we may be moving away from our conventional boots-on-the-ground, war-on-terror engagement and toward diplomacy, cybersecurity, and financial infrastructures. What do you make of that assessment?

AS: I think this is probably the most transformational time in national security policy in the 24-plus years I’ve been in Congress. Look at the first Gulf War: It ultimately proved to be very problematic, but in the meantime it taught us some of the wrong lessons. People got the idea that the US military is so good, so much better than anyone else’s, that we can show up and do whatever we want to do. As a result, we sort of became obsessed with the idea of the military as a tool of foreign policy. But it didn’t work that well past a certain point. Now I think we need to concentrate on building partner capacity, working with allies in security coalitions. 

There’s a growing awareness that tank-on-tank, ship-on-ship, plane-on-plane all-out war are not the fights we’re going to have. When you look at what’s happened in Crimea, the Eastern Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it’s more about information systems: how you access information, how you process it, how you make sure that your enemies can’t disrupt it and how you can disrupt your enemies’ information systems. That’s a total change in where we need to spend our military money and how we look at the world. I think that shift is happening and that Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan reflects this.

SC: Do you have a sense that this is shaping up to be a Biden doctrine?

AS: Absolutely. The key here is how we deter our adversaries. For too long the military has said that the way we deter them is to show them a military that will dominate them no matter what; that if we get into a fight, they’re going to lose. That strategy gets increasingly difficult as the world becomes more spread out and China arises as a greater power. But there are still ways to deter our adversaries. There are ways to build alliances and have enough power such that China doesn’t think it’s OK to take over Taiwan, North Korea doesn’t think it’s OK to invade South Korea, Russia doesn’t think it’s OK to take over Eastern Europe. There are a lot of ways to do this that aren’t about preparing for all-out war. I think that doctrine is developing within the Pentagon, within the national security establishment. Biden is on the cutting edge of that, in my view.

SC: You recently tweeted, “It is disappointing that the Biden administration’s revised refugee policies announced today didn’t increase the admissions cap from Trump’s historically low number.” Shortly after that tweet, the Biden administration backtracked a little bit, but as somebody who focuses on outcomes, what do you think would be the ideal outcome for our refugee resettlement program?

AS: I get what the Biden administration was saying. Trump took some very public positions to savage immigrants and make refugee status and immigration less available. I get that we’re not going to immediately get back up to the levels that I think we ought to be at, when we were in the 60,000–100,000 range. I just wanted to push the administration a little bit, to say we can do better than 15,000. Immigration is a positive for this country, bringing in refugees, taking in asylum seekers. I want to see us be pretty aggressive about getting back to an immigration policy that reflects the best interests and the best values of our country. 

So much of our foreign policy focus over the past 20 years has been in the Middle East, South Asia, and to a lesser extent, Africa. We’ve had some good relationships in Latin America — for example with Colombia, because our governments worked together to try to reduce drug trafficking — but our relationship with Mexico is terrible, as it is with the Northern Triangle countries like Honduras. We’ve been ignoring our relationships with our Latin American neighbors. I’m not saying that us being more present would magically make these countries’ economic and crime problems go away, but it would help for us to be involved and engaged again. If the people in Latin America were safe and they had economic opportunity, they wouldn’t be flooding up to the American border. We need to pivot and focus on what’s driving thousands of people to show up at the border. There is no good solution right now. We can do better than Trump. We don’t have to be cruel. But we are mitigating the damages of a humanitarian catastrophe at this point. We need to get to the root causes.

SC: We now know that one in five of the defendants arrested for their activity at the Capitol insurrection served in the military. What sort of action can we expect here to deal with extremism in the military?

AS. The problem is real. Some of the internet chat rooms for special forces people are full of talk about QAnon conspiracies, how the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and racism and white supremacy. It’s a problem within our country and a problem within the military. When we try to address the issue, most Republicans say first that the problem doesn’t exist, and then second they go on their whole “anti-woke” speech, that this is politically correct cancel culture, that we are trying to reeducate people and have a cultural revolution. 

We want to address this, but there is a risk of going too far. Just because someone says they don’t necessarily trust the outcome of the election, that doesn’t make them a white supremacist. You have to figure out how to work with and engage people and not marginalize them with a narrow approach to the proper way of thinking about the world. If you contribute to a conservative backlash, then no one is listening to anybody, chaos ensues, and you have a rich environment for white supremacists to recruit in. So I want to figure out what message we need to get out. Who is an extremist? It is not simply someone who does not buy into every left-wing political view. How do you come up with a proper definition of extremism and then enforce it? A lot of work needs to be done to get this right, but it’s a huge problem and a huge threat to good order and discipline, and the ability of the military to do its job. We need to address this, and my committee is going to do that.

Image courtesy armedservices.house.gov


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Stephan Cox is a public radio and broadcasting veteran who has helmed shows for PRI, and KUSF, and has reported for NPR. He is the host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast.

Cynthia Eller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's really eager for term limits in Congress and ditching the filibuster.

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