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John McCain, Newt Gingrich, and Michelle Van Cleave Discuss American Foreign Policy at the 2016 KLAD

Updated: Jul 12, 2022



James Kemp– So recognizing this Seventy-Fifth Anniversary. Please you can eat your salad and get started. But we thought it would be appropriate on this 75th Anniversary to take some time to reflect on America’s leadership in the world as a new Congress and a new President prepare to take office. So we’ve invited two very special guests one of whom I have mentioned already, who have been at the forefront of ideas-Ideas that focus on what it means for America to lead, what it means for America to be Exceptional. And they themselves have been extraordinary leaders and continue to be. And we would like them to share their thoughts on the challenges that lie ahead for our nation and for the world. So while you eat your salads, I would like to welcome to the stage three wonderful friends of the Kemp family and I would like to start with Senator John McCain who as you know graduated from the United States Naval Academy. He is currently Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces committee. He was our Republican nominee for President in 2008. And as of three weeks ago, he is the proud new grandfather of John McCain V. Please welcome Senator John McCain III.

Next, I think I was 22 years old, 1994, and –Those who remember their political history remember what happened that year. How long had it been since the Republicans had the house? 40 years. So 40 years and the Republicans came to the majority in the House, and Speaker Newt Gingrich let me, a little punk 22-year old, come follow him around for a day. That made an incredible impression me because he—the first thing he did was take care of himself. He swam and then met me at the office at 7:30. Newt is Prodigious in so many ways Prolific, Prodigious. What other adjectives can we come up with? Please welcome Newt Gingrich.

Then to moderate this conversation it gives me a really great enjoyment to have Michelle Van Cleave who has been with me since I started the Kemp foundation in 2009 shortly after dad passed away. Michelle is a national security expert. She’ was the head of Counterintelligence for President W. Bush. She was my dad’s foreign policy adviser and national security adviser. Michelle is incredibly talented. I really can’t think of anybody better than Michelle to guide us in this discussion. I’m thrilled that you all get the opportunity to hear her. So please Michelle Van Cleave.

Michelle Van Cleave– It’s a pleasure to see everyone here tonight. I have to tell you that ahead of time I spoke to Senator McCain. I said I’m looking forward to this conversation. He said, well, it will be lively. I spoke to the speaker and he said, well, it will be amusing. So we’ll see if they live up to this billing. Coming out of World War II, starting there, America understood its role to be that of leader of the free world. We had a purposeful national security strategy to that end embodied in SC-68 and it chartered a central role for advancing freedom throughout the world. Ever since, the call for American leadership has been echoed on both sides of the aisle from our leaders. However, what constitutes American leadership has often been a matter of dispute. So in particular, where to draw the line between advancing our values and our principles and advancing what is seen as national interests has been a longstanding debate in foreign policy circles. Certainly Presidents Clinton and Bush both argued that spreading American values is essential to our interests. I think one would search in vain for any statements by President Obama to the contrary. So there is a growing belief in many quarters that trying to promote our beliefs and our values it may not be worth the cost in all cases to advance democracy. So let’s start with that. Where do you come down on that issue, Senator please?

Senator John McCain III– So first, could I say thank you. I’d like to thank the Kemp Foundation and Kemp family. Congratulations to Nikki Haley for the singular honor in her new position in a very nice suite in the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. By the way, I was reminded of the story of the two inmates in the chow line at the state prison. One turned to the other and said, the food was a lot better in here when you were Governor. Anyway. Can’t tell that joke in Illinois. Anyway. Look, I think yesterday – I saw the President of the United States give one of the most delusional statements I’ve ever heard in my many years associated with national security. Basically, not only denying the failures of the last 8 years but extolling them. My friends look at a map of the world in 2009. Look at a map of the world today. You will see Al Qaeda, you will see bloodshed, and you will see millions of refugees. You will see tensions and you will see a total lack of belief and confidence in the United States of America. I would argue that this President probably has the greatest challenge since the beginning, since December 8, 1941, when by the way that wonderful service today down at the memorial they quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his statement on the 8th. But, look, what the last eight years have proven very simply is that without American leadership things go bad. When you lead from behind somebody else tries to lead from in front. Now we’re looking at — you know, there was a person back in the Roman times who was an opponent of the Romans who said — they made a desert and called it peace. They made a desert and called it peace. In Aleppo as we speak, my dear friends, they’re making a desert. And sooner or later they’re making a — desert and sooner or letter, the Russians, Basher Assad and the Iranians, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah will stop after they’ve slaughtered 5, 10, and 20,000 more people. And nobody seems to give a damn. That’s what the tragedy is of all this. Finally, there was a time when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and nobody cared. There was a time when the Spanish Civil War, thanks Hitler and Mussolini installed a fascist government and nobody cared. Then there was Czechoslovakia where Neville Chamberlin uttered the famous words we’re not going to send our young men to a place they speak a language we do not know. This President is going to have the greatest national security challenges in the last 70 years. And so far, I think you would agree, and I’ll pass this off to him, I’m very pleased with the national security team that he seems to be assembling.

Speaker Newt Gingrich– Let me say first, I can’t come to the Kemp Foundation without recognizing JoAnne and the family. But also, I think that the appointment of the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson may give us the greatest opportunity since Jack Kemp to really make a breakthrough in trying to help inner city Americans. And I think he will do so — [applause] — by standing on Jack’s shoulders. I can’t imagine a better man for this Foundation to be meeting and thinking about its opportunities to provide unique help to millions of Americans who really need to break out of the cultural and bureaucratic prisons that they’re trapped in. I think the question is important and I’m probably to some extent a heretic on this topic. First of all, even during World War II when we were far and away the most powerful country in the world by the end of the war we were about 50% of the world’s G.D.P. in 1946 because everybody bombed each other. We are the only place that had not been bombed. Even then we recognized very severe limitations of power. So we didn’t try to take out Franco in Spain. We didn’t try to deal with a wide — we were very cautious about the Soviets. Not that they represented American values but that we were advocating a way of life, we were prepared to defend it, frankly, with far more sophistication than anything you could get away with today. I mean, if you tried today to influence the French and Italian elections the way we did in the late 1940’s, it would be utterly hopeless. It would all be in the “Washington Post” and the “New York Times,” all be in WikiLeaks. There would be congressional hearings and at least six hundred lawyers would point that it was illegal, unconstitutional, whatever. But we back then did a lot of things in a lot of ways but we also had a very real sense of our own limitations. There are parts of the world that are hard. I would suggest to you, for example, if you have 4,000 people shot and 700 people killed in south side Chicago in the last year that is a very hard problem. So before we get too certain about the things we are going to project, I think –I come out of a very old-fashioned conservative view that you ought to be cautious about what you do. The thing that is infuriating about Obama is that they are quite cheerful about disrupting everything without putting anything in its place. That just – I think it’s very important to understand that. If you are going to undertake a project, you need to make sure you’re capable of getting it done. Their whole notion in the Middle East, for example has led to a level of chaos, whether it’s in Libya or Somalia or Yemen, or Syria, or Iraq. It is astonishing that the United States could have been as recklessly led as it has been by Barack Obama and that he and his team can be as out of touch with reality as they are. So my first advice to the new President is going to be, be a little cautious about what you think you know. And, frankly, one of the reasons — the Senator was very generous in allowing me to work with him on some things and Jim Mattis was part of that. I can’t imagine a more cautious, sophisticated professional than General Mattis. He understands the region but he also understands the limitations of American power and he understands that — you know, this is not an area you engage in lightly. I think he also understands that our greatest enemy in the region is Iran. To go back to Reagan just for one second – because you were there — Reagan had a clear sense of hierarchy. One of the reasons he did not get deeply involved in taking on the Iranians even though they were behind the bombing of American marines in Lebanon, was that wasn’t his goal. He had one major foreign policy goal — the defeat of the Soviet Union. And he stayed focused on that goal. Of course, in 1991 the world changed and the Soviet Union disappeared. We desperately need to really rethink our strategies in the world. And we underestimate how hard it is. Let me just say, just run the list. North Korea, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and Islamic supremacists on a cross-border basis. Those six problems, any one of them is hard. And the new President is going to face all six simultaneously. And that is a very daunting challenge for us as a country.

Michelle Van Cleave– Well, Mr. Speaker, if I may pick up on something you said a moment ago. The Soviet Union dissolved 25 years ago, this month. It is inspiring to me that we are sitting here in this hall because this hall in 1949 is where the 12 original members of NATO met invited by President Truman and signed that accord which saw us through the Cold War. And when the Soviet Union dissolved and all the states then declared their independence, we Americans were of the view that, well, this is a time of change in history. It was extraordinary for all of us. And we had looked then at Russia at being perhaps no longer counted among the list of our adversaries. But in a sense that didn’t last that long since we had Putin come to power, since we saw the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, and the invasions into Ukraine and current activities in Syria. And I would add from my own background, a real escalation in Russian espionage both in Europe and certainly here in the U.S. so we have these reverberations that have led to questions about U.S. leadership and where we stand as far as containing Russian expansionism. And there is a good part of the world, from what I read and the people I talk to, that are a little worried that the incoming U.S. President plans to cut deals with Putin to their detriment. Now, I don’t believe that but perceptions are important and I am wondering what we should be doing to allay those kinds of concerns and to reaffirm our commitment to NATO and to our alliances.

Speaker Newt Gingrich– Well, I’ll toss it to John to clean up after me. Look, I don’t know that I want to go out and reassure anybody. I don’t know what President-elect Trump is going to do. I don’t think President-elect Trump knows what he is going to do. But I don’t mean that in a shallow way. This is a very, very smart man. Remember, after amassing somewhere between 4 and $10 billion he then defeated 16 people for the Republican nomination. And John and I can both tell you this is not the easiest thing to do. He then defeated the elite news media and Hillary Clinton simultaneously. So to assume that this is some casual shell of a guy is totally wrong. But he hasn’t been through the process of planning. The people he is starting to surround himself with, I feel pretty good about. I think Nikki Haley will be a tremendous ambassador and is a great choice. I think Mattis will be as prepared as anybody else for Secretary of Defense. He will be an extraordinarily knowledgeable person about the world and particularly the Middle East. I once had somebody come to me and say that Trump is going to use The Apprenticemodel and he’s going to call Vladimir Putin and say you’re fired. I said that Trump- Trump is going to call Putin and say look you’re a Minch, I’m a Minch, this last guy was nothing no wonder you despised him. I’d like to work something out. But remember this is what he just said to the Chinese by accepting one phone call. But remember if you really want to play competitively, I have the bigger economy, the bigger military, the greater capability, so if you really want me to tell General Mattis we are going to have to crowd the Russians for a while, I can do that and your aircraft carrier will leave the Mediterranean because you cannot possibly sustain it and you’re gonna find your supply lines in real trouble because you cannot possibly sustain it. We should be able to work together. Every time I have talked to Donald Trump and I have talked to him a lot the past two years, he never operates from weakness.  And I suspect he would like to find a way to have a healthy relationship with Putin than Obama had. Frankly, I’d like to have a healthier relationship with Putin than Obama has. Obama tempted Putin. You don’t go to a KGB agent and say Hi! I am really weak and stupid, please take advantage of me and then be shocked that all his training kicks in and he takes advantage of you. Because you begged him to do it and he could not resist.

Michelle Van Cleave– What do you think about that Mr. Chairman?

Senator McCain– A tough act to follow. Could I say before I go further?  I forgot that two of my role models have been this individual and Jack Kemp.  We had been as you said 40 years out in the minority, the wilderness. These two individuals were probably the prime reasons why to the astonishment of one and all, we became a majority in the United States House of Representatives.  And Jack Kemp, when you get a bunch of egos in a room in a Republican conference and usually  people don’t pay much attention, but when Jack Kemp stood up to speak and we all listened because we knew he had a vision for America that is thanks to this Foundation alive and well today. That is why I ‘m honored to be here. There is an old line about ignoring the lessons of history and then you’re doomed to repeat them. Lessons of history when Ronald Reagan came to office with a clear statement of peace through strength. It was not an accident that the same day he was inaugurated, the hostages came home from Tehran. A message needs to be sent to Vladimir Putin that his adventurism, & his aggression, his attempts to divide up the Ukraine which he’s done, his attempts to overthrow the freely elected governments of the Baltic states, his attempt frankly as the media reports attempts to assassinate the Prime Minister of the little country called Montenegro.  Putin is acting with wild abandon. Russia is a mafia run gas station masquerading as a country. The world’s fifteenth G.D.P. and he’s playing his cards in the most incredibly clever fashion, where he is now a major influence in the Middle East which they haven’t been since Anwar Sadat threw them out of Egypt in 1973. There is no doubt what his ambitions are.  But recently there was a poll in Sweden and seventy-three percent of the Swedish people believe they ought to consider joining NATO because Vladimir Putin has scared the hell out of them in the Arctic.  Everywhere I go and all these leaders, I talked to a group of Baltic leaders, today. Guess what they want to know if they can depend on the United States of America — United States of America or do they have to accommodate. These countries were part of the Soviet Union for fifty years. So what we need, and I believe that the people around President-elect Trump have that kind of inner strength. It is not just Mattis, who is our hero, but if he takes Petraeus, or Mitt Romney or John Bolton. John Bolton would shake up the State Department in a way that is long overdue my dear friends. General Kelly, there is nobody that knows more about our own hemisphere than General Kelly. There is a manufactured Mexican heroin that is an epidemic in the northeast and Midwest of this country. I’m sorry to tell you that the distribution point is Phoenix, Arizona. So he is assembling a team that I believe should be listened to. Life is full of anecdotes. As you know, President-elect Trump during the campaign, he said he would do waterboarding and worse, and then just the other day, he said he asked General Mattis, and he said he could do much better with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack of beer. I hope he takes his word for it, and I think he might because it’s obvious he respects General Mattis. The message has to be sent that the United States of America is not interested in conflict. Ronald Reagan was not interested in conflict. The lessons of history show that you have to show a steadfast, strong position, which then your potential adversary does not want to run the risk. But if your adversary and my best example, lately, it wakes me up, honestly. Here is two American vessels manned by American sailors, put on their knees with their hands clasped behind their neck in the most gross violation of international law by the Iranians, — by the Iranians, and what does our Secretary of State do? He waits until they return and then thanks the Iranians.  That picture of the American sailors on their knees was everywhere, all over the Middle East. Don’t think it does not have an impact. If these people think we are weak, they will take advantage of it. I believe it is time that the United States return to the days of old and our role model, still my role model and hero, Ronald Reagan, who won the Cold War without firing a shot in the words of Margaret Thatcher.

Michelle Van Cleave: Mr. Chairman, you mentioned Jack Kemp, my old boss, and I recalled hearing him say so often, freedom must be won a new by every generation. And surely the current generation is no exception to that rule. My question is, are we postured to do that? We understand the biggest lesson of Pearl Harbor to have been to be prepared for surprise. You have to be prepared for surprise, we build an intelligence community around this objective. Where are we to say in being prepared for surprises, for the known unknowns as Don Rumsfeld would call them, or even the unknown unknowns? Do we have the capabilities?

Senator McCain–   December 7th, 1941 it was a surreal moment because a majority of the people of the United States did not want us involved or engaged in Japan or Germany. That event galvanized American public opinion. That united America. We were not ready. All during the 30’s, we did not build ships or we didn’t build airplanes or train pilots. The pilots they did launch that day on December 7, 1941, they were meat on the table for the Japanese zero. They were out sped outmaneuvered, outgunned and out piloted. I am sorry to tell you that because of this crazy thing called sequestration, we are now cutting into the most important part of our defense capabilities, and that is readiness and training. Whenever you cut defense budgets, the first thing that goes is the operations and training and the maintenance because it is the easiest. I can tell you that our service chiefs — service chiefs testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee have said the following, because of sequestration, we are putting the men and women in uniform at greater risk. Is it our job as members of congress and leadership to put our finest of America at greater risk? Of course not. I applaud President-elect Trump because he told me personally over the phone and many times publicly, we will rebuild the military. He said it on many occasions, and I am encouraged by it. I can also tell you there are members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, who are simply not aware, nor do they realize the urgency and challenges that America faces in the twenty-first century. Do you agree, newt?

Speaker Newt Gingrich–  This is why we have to have a great national debate. There is no signal you can send to the Chinese or the Russians more powerful than rebuilding the American military. You don’t want anything close to parity. You want overwhelming capabilities so the other side knows they will lose. You are least likely to have a war if the other side understands they cannot win. You are most likely to have a war if they can think of some clever way they can offset you. This whole concept of seeing how it works out in the next couple months in the budget, we have to profoundly reinvest in virtually every aspect of the American defense system in order to be back in a position where we are relatively safe in a very dangerous world.

Michelle Van Cleave– One last question before we conclude. I wonder if you might have some advice you would like to offer to Governor Haley as she prepares for her new job in New York.

Senator McCain– I think she is going to enjoy very much the Russian ambassador. He is a really neat guy. Spending time with him, not to mention the Chinese. Could I just mention one thing? Newt and I have painted a pretty tough picture. I would not bet against the United States. I would just like to mention, we are now energy independent. Some of us in this room remember waiting five hours at a gas line because the Middle Eastern nations had cut off the oil supply. That’ll never happen again. We will be an energy exporter, and if we can do that, we can get natural gas to the living rooms of the eastern Ukraine so that they cannot be dependent on Vladimir Putin. Would you like to be in china, some of us have to been to china and some days you can’t see the next block because of the pollution. For 40 years, the Chinese had a one-child policy. They have a demographic challenge the likes of which are going to be gigantic. You see this device here? I have to buy a new goddamn one every six months by the time I have figured it out. This is not invented in China — in China or Europe or in any other place. This is a device that is changing the world. It is information and knowledge and knowledge is power. When I get a little depressed trying to do the lord’s work in the city of Satan, I go and meet with men and women in uniform, their leaders particularly their noncommissioned officers, they are the best and no one can match up with them. They are the best. There is nobody that can match up to them. You give them the equipment they need, and the training, American pilots are flying less hours per month than the Chinese and Russians. We give them the things they need, and there will be no one that can match up with them. I always appreciate Newt’s thinking, and his ideas. A lot of the time, he is dead wrong, but I do have the greatest appreciation for his intellect, and he will go down in history as a leader who really changed the way that the Republican Party governs.

Speaker Newt Gingrich– Off of that very nice semi-endorsement from my very dear friend who I admire so deeply, has been the epitome for our generation of public service at every level. Let me just say Nikki, recently I co-chaired a UN reform committee with George Mitchell which  we concluded  was essentially, bureaucratic incompetent, corrupt,  riddled with nepotism and stunningly hard to reform, I have seen you at work in Columbia, and I know that you are a great, natural politician in the best sense of the world. You understand bringing people together and listening to them and getting things done. Two things to remember, cheerful persistence. You are going to a place that is not used to having an effective American ambassador. The normal, daily behavior, it is like sending Trump to the New York Times or MSNBC. The natural bias in the General Assembly is tough. But I think as we remerge as the leading country of the world, there will be a lot of folks who want to talk to you. Got this from a working model, actually I got this from the Army: Listen, learn, help and lead. Your natural interest in people to connect with every single delegation and ambassador, six to eight months from now, you will have a remarkable reach into the UN. And you will be able to serve your country and the president with remarkable effectiveness. I was thrilled when the President-elect announced he was nominating you, and I cannot imagine anyone who would do a better job.

Senator McCain– Could I just mention one thing? Arguably the most impactful, efficient, most admired ambassador of our time was Jeane Kirkpatrick. I would look at the way Jeane Kirkpatrick conducted herself and represented our nation in the United Nations. Do you agree?

Michelle Van Cleave– And on that note and wonderful tribute to Jeane, thank you both for being here. Just join me in a round of applause.

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