National Security (Part 2): An Interview with Chris Gibson

U.S. Representative Chris Gibson

Chris Gibson was a popular three-term congressman for New York’s 19th district (2013-2016) and 20th district (2011-2012), and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. A retired colonel, Gibson served in the army for 24 years and earned four Bronze Star Medals, the Purple Heart, and other military awards. Gibson holds a PhD in government from Cornell, completed a national security fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and taught American Politics at West Point. He is a member of the Republican Party.

In Part 1 last year, Gibson spoke about his POSTURE Act of 2016, as well as foreign policy challenges in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In this latest interview, Gibson outlines ideas for tackling rising tensions with North Korea, ending the wars in Syria and Iraq, and applying a ‘peace through strength’ approach to Russia.

Tensions with North Korea are running high. What is your take on the approach the United States should use to address this crisis?

It’s very delicate. Clearly, it’s in everyone’s best interest that we have a peaceful resolution to this crisis. I have long advocated that we have to build relationships inside North Korea. That means engaging at all levels with the regime to get to better know their leadership and what their issues are. Meanwhile, as many have said, there is a role for China to play. Being their neighbor, China is integral to the economy and overall life in North Korea, and we need their help engaging with the regime, so we can find a way to de-escalate.

That’s a big ask for China, so we have to be realistic that if we’re going to solicit their help, China’s going to want something in return. I advocate for comprehensive talks with China that work towards a bilateral agreement that addresses security—security not only with North Korea but writ large—that addresses trade, currency, and intellectual property. We need to have a fundamental conversation about what it means to be a leading power in the world in the 21st century. We are certainly one. So is China. I think we can find ways to accommodate each other and, in the process, find a way to de-escalate the situation in North Korea.

President Trump recently stated if “appropriate” he would be “honored” to meet with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un, but also said on whether he would take military action, “I mean, we’ll see.” President Trump is applying high pressure on both diplomatic and military fronts. What is your view of this approach?

I’m aware and I’m concerned actually. Certainly, we want to have a ‘peace through strength’ approach, which requires that we signal very clearly to North Korea what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, and in that process, include re-positioning U.S. assets. Bringing a carrier strike group, bringing missile defense to South Korea, I support those actions. We have to be clear in our rhetoric on our intent to find a way to de-escalate this situation. Towards that end, strong statements are appropriate.

However, we have to be really careful about what those statements are. I have not been comfortable with some of the words that President Trump has chosen because, unlike many other relationships we share around the world, we don’t really know North Korea that well, and I’m concerned about them misreading some of the commentary. I think when he goes a step further and talks about, in sometimes a glib way, the use of force, we could eventually unintentionally cause an escalation, and that’s not in anyone’s interest. I don’t want to see us end up at war with North Korea, so I think we should be much more circumspect with the words we choose, and that’s going to require real disciplined statesmanship. So, I want to see an improvement in the administration.

Part of President Trump’s signaling to North Korea and China has arguably been in the Middle East, where his recent missile strike on the Syrian airfield was largely applauded on both sides of the aisle. What was your reaction to that missile strike in Syria?

Let me first make it clear how saddened I am by the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have lost their lives. It is beyond tragedy. It certainly ought to be motivation for the international community to play a role in trying to bring about a peace in Syria, and I urge the United States to take a leadership role. I think we have a critical role to play, but it’s underdeveloped right now in terms of what we can get done in the diplomatic space.

On the missile strike: I can imagine ways where it possibly could be in our best interests, but it hasn’t been clear. No one, including the president, has been able to articulate how this action, this taking of 59 Tomahawk missiles and firing them at targets inside Syria against the regime, how that specific decision is going to link to our overarching strategy in Syria.

It’s said we sent a message. Well, I’ve inquired: What is that message? That they’re not going to kill their own people? If that’s the message, they didn’t get it because they continued to do that even 8 hours later. That they won’t use that airbase to strike their own people? If that’s the message, they didn’t get that one either because airframe from that same base struck the same target that they had hit with the chemical weapons only days earlier. If the message was not to use chemical weapons, well that’s ambiguous, because the period of time between the last time they used chemical weapons and the one most recently was considerable: many, many months. Are we just going to assume because they haven’t used it today that the cause of that was the American strike? I think that’s dubious. So, there needs to be a clear strategy on what it is that we’re endeavoring to do, and any clear strategy has got to start with an end state.

What is it we’re driving towards? Are we working towards an interim peace agreement in Syria? If so, what might that look like? We’re at a stalemate because all parties are pursuing their number one interest, which means no one gets any interest. A real contribution that we can make is if we can imagine a post-conflict Syria that might be acceptable to all parties: to the Alawite government, to the Turks, to the Kurds, to most of the rebel groups, although not al-Nusra or the al-Qaeda elements associated, and the Russians.

It’s difficult, but when I have examined this:

  • As it relates to the Alawite regime, I think we can be clear that some element of the Alawite regime would be in control of parts of what we consider Syria. About a third of what used to be Syria is still controlled by the Alawite regime. While that’s not 100%, a third is still bigger than Lebanon, so the Alawite regime can play an important role in the region even if it doesn’t go back to its pre-2011 territory. On the issue of Assad, I think that we have to be very delicate on that. To insist on regime change is really not in our purview; I think it’s is up to the Syrian people. However, on the issue of accountability and due process, that is in the interest of everyone, including Syria and the international community. As we work towards an interim agreement, we can make pledges towards principles that there would be fairness in due process, and if there were found to be war crimes committed, there would be accountability. That’s number one.
  • Two, we know that the Kurds have played a major role in the space for a number of years. This is a source of contention with the Turks, but there has got to be a realization that as part of the significant sacrifices made by the Kurdish people in this long struggle, there’s going to be some kind of outcome that recognizes that. When you consider Turkey’s long-term interests, they want to see some resolution to this issue, particularly inside their boundaries. If we were to offer the Kurds some combination as it relates to this interim agreement, but then they would have to make concessions as it relates to inside Turkey, now we might be in a space where we can reach some kind of accommodation.
  • Then with the rebel factions, there’s going to have to be some kind of understanding that parts of that country are going to remain under the Alawite regime. For areas controlled by rebel groups, we can have a conversation about what that interim government would look like, and I think that’s what is really at play there for the rebel groups, some autonomy inside those regions.
  • For Russia, two things: one is to play a role in this whole process, that’s important to them. Second is they have some bases there, and if we can find an interim agreement, they may find that they can continue to secure those installations.

So, I think there is a space where we can get everybody. However, while all these entities continue to pursue their number one priority, we will continue in the current condition, which is endless war with more death and destruction and misery, and an outcome that’s in no one’s interest. This is where American leadership can make a difference: to persuade all those involved that there is a space where, even if it isn’t your number one priority, it is better than endless war. If we can help these parties get to a place where they can accept an interim agreement, then we can begin to look at tools of statecraft to figure out how, if we have some obstinate elements that are reluctant to move, how we can get them to see that it’s in their best interest to come to the table. We’re not even there yet. So, my biggest criticism is we’re using these levers—they’re very serious when we talk about the use of force—when we don’t even know what we’re striving towards. This is my major criticism of those strikes.

While the end state in Syria looks far off, the end state in Iraq looks nearer. Iraqi security forces expect to fully re-capture Mosul soon. You served in Iraq last time that happened, after which it was lost again. What must happen differently this time to bring long-term stability?

As far as military operations, we’ve been here before. As you point out, I was part of securing Mosul in 2004 and 2005, and then later in Nineveh province for the balance of 2005. We have lost some of the finest of this generation here in America in pursuit of peace and stability in Iraq, and it’s very tragic that we’re back in this very same spot. Now we had another loss this weekend, a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne division, a young lieutenant killed in action in the vicinity of Mosul.

What we need to do, for your question, is to learn from what was done wrong in the past. That is, once the military operation ceases, we need the hard work of reconciliation and restoring legitimacy and efficacy in the government. There has to be a belief among the people in Nineveh province and in Mosul that the government’s going to work for them, that it’s going to provide basic services: water, electricity, schools, and security. The major issue that we had in the past is the government was perceived as sectarian and unfair to large portions of Iraq. This was a sectarian Shia government that carried out harsh policies towards minorities, including the Sunni. After taking this for years on end, there were elements in the military that were Sunni that decided they were not going to die for Maliki. They weren’t going to die for Iraq because they felt they’d been utterly unfairly treated. So, when the Islamic State poured across the border and moved towards Mosul, they took their uniform off and ran. Going forward, once we help the Iraqis secure Mosul and the other places that are left to be brought under control, what is needed immediately is the belief that the new government is going to work towards reconciliation and to provide basic services in an impartial manner.

What steps can the United States take to push the Iraqi government toward those actions?

On military operations, we have been incredible. We played a role in providing combat support assets, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, airpower, some artillery support, advise and assist, and logistical support. Our investments have been significant. We’re really involved and we’re sacrificing. We’re making major commitment to them, and we want an understanding on the Iraqi government’s part that we’ve been part of this re-asserting of governmental control in Iraq.

Going forward, as they move towards post-hostilities and stabilization, they’re going to continue to need our help. They’re going to need our help in all those capacities that I mentioned already, and even further. We have specialists on the ground, civil-military specialists, that can assist them as they start to bring efficacy and legitimacy to the ground in parts of Iraq that they hadn’t controlled in years.

As a leverage point for the United States, we need to insist that any further conveyance of military aid and financial assistance would be contingent on the new government meeting benchmarks in terms of reconciliation, making big decisions on re-integration, employment, sharing of revenues that come from the oil, and opportunities. That opportunities would not be foreclosed to those who are in minority status. We should put it in writing that any kind of resources and financial support we provide should be contingent on a review of the benchmark achievements of the new Iraq.

A major actor in the Middle East is Russia. In our last interview, you mentioned a ‘peace through strength’ approach, as it relates U.S. policy toward NATO and Russia more broadly. What should be the key elements of this strategy?

It needs to be steady. A peace through strength approach very clearly states what our interests are—what’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It’s not just words though, it’s backed up by action. That’s why in our last interview, I talked about the re-positioning and commitment of forces into NATO to re-assure our allies.

We’re bound by NATO Treaty Article 5 to come to the defense of nations who are attacked in NATO, including the Baltic nations: Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. In those cases, we know just from reviewing the order of battle that had Russia decided to invade the Baltic nations, we couldn’t get there in time. They would’ve been able to secure the capitals of those Baltic states before we could even begin to respond, which would put us in a very perilous situation. We would be legally bound to respond, but there would be no conventional way to do that other than mounting some massive invasion that would take the full commitment of the United States and have to overcome anti-access. You’re talking about a D-Day type of operation or Incheon, something that would be very high-risk and potentially very high-loss for the United States. Or, escalating strategically—unthinkable. When you look at those two options, you can see why the Congress felt that it was a smart idea to take preventive action.

That is why I led the effort on the POSTURE Act. We stopped the drawdown of our armed forces. We not only stopped the drawdown, but we added to end strength, and then we recommitted forces to Europe. We’re in the process now of executing that. We’ve sent an armored brigade to Europe. It is going to be headquarters in Poland, but it’s very mobile, and we’ll conduct exercises throughout the Baltic nations to bring assurances to those nations. In addition to the United States brigade in Poland, we have seen Great Britain, Canada, and Germany provide a battalion task force each that will be in a respective Baltic nation. To do so is to really bring deterrence because now Russia understands that if they’re going to try to do something as aggressive as make a move on a Baltic nation, they’re going to have to kill NATO troops to do it, and they know that’s a major escalation. I think this has worked. My read of Putin is he’s very aggressive; however, he can be deterred. When you talk about deterrence, you’re talking about costs and benefits. In this case, I think we’ve altered the scenario, where he realizes that the costs exceed the benefits, and we’ve helped to secure the Eastern flank of NATO.

In the areas that are outside of NATO that have been the scene of Russian aggression, that’s a harder issue. Here we’re talking about Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. We have certainly protested this. This is a violation of law, something Russia signed and then violated. But this is one that is a longer-term issue. We’re not going to be able to resolve this overnight, but we’re going to have to stay committed that Russia shall live by its word. In the longer-term for Russia to eventually get our relationship to the next level, which I’m sure that at some point they’ll be interested in doing, they need to understand that we’re going to want this addressed.

That’s the Eastern Europe part of this, but that’s not all, as you point out. As we continue to show peace through strength, what we should not do is rule out working with Russia in areas where we have common ground. Here we’re talking about Syria. While I helped lead efforts to firm up our commitment to NATO, I at the same time think we can work with Russia in Syria. It’s important to do that, because if we don’t, we’re going to continue to see a stalemate and a civil war, along with the misery and the loss of life to the angst of everyone internationally.