Exclusive Interview: Hunter Eyes Presidential Campaign

House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) recently announced he was forming an exploratory committee to examine the possibility of seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

First elected to Congress in 1980—the same year fellow California conservative Ronald Reagan was elected President—Hunter has a 92% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.

He won the Bronze Star for his service in the Army in Vietnam and, during his long tenure on the Armed Services Committee, has always promoted a strong military and the interests of U.S. armed forces personnel.

One of Congress’s leading immigration-enforcement hawks, he was a principal advocate of building a double fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has a perfect pro-life voting record and has sponsored pro-life legislation. He shares Ronald Reagan’s supply-side vision for tax policy but eagerly admits he is a trade hawk who dissents from Republican colleagues on the issue of free trade.

In recent years, he has voted for some big-government programs, including President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription-drug entitlement.

The editors of HUMAN EVENTS interviewed Hunter in his Capitol Hill office on November 15. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

What is the main reason that you’re thinking of running?

Duncan Hunter: I think that the preeminent issues of the next 10, 20, 30 years are going to be security issues. I think I can give some value to those important issues for our nation.

You didn’t see any other possible Republican candidate out there who would be acceptable?

Hunter: I think we ought to let the other candidates speak for themselves. I think we’ll have a good, talented field, and we’ll have a broad discussion. But we’ll let them tell you what they stand for. I can tell you what I stand for.

I believe in supply-side economics. I supported the Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, and would support extensions of those—because all of these tax cuts, a number of them, have sunsets and extensions are required. That’s where I’m on common ground with the most other Republicans. But one place where we differ is trade.

We’ve practiced what I call “losing trade”—deliberately losing trade—over the last 50 years. We need to reverse that. Today, other countries around the world employ what they call a value-added tax, in which foreign governments refund to their corporations that are exporting goods to the United States the full amount of their value-added taxes that that particular company pays in making a product. They subsidize them. Japan’s VAT, I think, is 5% or 6%. I believe China’s is 17%.

When American products hit their shores, they charge a value-added tax going in that is the same amount. So they enact a double hit against American exporters. One is that they subsidize their own imports going out, and the second is that they tax us coming in. The United States doesn’t do this.

What would you do about it?

Hunter: First, I think the World Trade Organization has locked in this unfair system through a majority vote by the nations that employ it, principally against the United States. We need a law akin to the bill I offered back in the 1980s in respect to Japanese products. It was called HR 5050, the Two-Way Street Bill. It said very simply that we would put the same charge on Japanese products coming into our country that they put on American products coming into their country. Regardless of what you call these charges, you would treat them in the same way that they treated you.

Would this be a violation of the WTO?

Hunter: We have the right, in our nation’s interest, to abandon WTO in whole or in part, just as any nation has a right to abandon its international agreements. I think it’s intolerable to allow the world trading system to have voted in essentially a subsidy directed at one nation—the United States—a subsidy on their end and a tariff on American exports to those nations, to lock that in as being allowed under WTO, and to not allow us under our system of taxation to effect reciprocity.

We’re conservatives. We’ve long hated a VAT.

Hunter: But that’s my point. What happens is these other countries’ economies operate under a VAT system. So, instead of paying income taxes, property taxes, etc., which is basically revenue for the government, they pay a VAT. They then refund those taxes to their exporters, regardless of what you call them.

So what you’re saying is that you don’t want a new tax that is imposed on a manufacturer operating inside the United States?

Hunter: No.

What you want to do is put a tariff on products entering the United States that equals the subsidy that Japan or China is giving its exporters.

Hunter: Yes.

And you’re not talking about putting any new tax on the domestic producer?

Hunter: No. I’m talking about calculating the amount of taxes that American manufacturers pay and giving them the same refund the foreign company receives from its government in exporting to the United States, to achieve what you would call equal treatment.

There will be a tax cut for American exporters?

Hunter: Precisely.

You sponsored a bill that says human life begins at conception and extends 14th- Amendment rights to unborn children. The bill mirrors what the Republican pro-life platform says. Obviously, you’re in favor of the Republican pro-life platform.

Hunter: Yes.

What would you do about abortion if you were president?

Hunter: I’d do everything I could to work toward doing everything we could do to eliminate abortion.

What sort of people would you name to the United States Supreme Court?

Hunter: I would name people that have a sensitivity toward human life.

Would you have a litmus test that they should favor over-turning Roe v Wade?

Hunter: I think I have a judgment test.

In his second Inaugural Address, President Bush said it’s the mission of the United States to end tyranny in the world, and to create democracies, even in the Middle East, where democracy has proved problematic in recent history. Your colleague, House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, on the other hand, has argued that this is the wrong way to go, that it could cause more problems than it solves, that the United States has to go back to a more realistic foreign policy. Where do you come down on that?

Hunter: I think our history has born out the proposition that free people don’t present a security threat to the United States. Therefore, it’s in our interests, wherever possible, to spread freedom. Now, having that is a basic guidepost, you need to overlay it with the understanding that nations must know their limitations. We did as much as we could in the Cold War. We pressed and we whittled at the Soviet Union, and we engaged in what essentially were two proxy wars with communism, one in Korea, and one in Vietnam—proxy wars with the Soviets and the Chinese. In the end, we brought down the Berlin Wall. Not with a benign policy, but with a fairly active policy, although we never had a head-on clash with the Soviet Union.

So, I think the question is one of judgment. Henry Hyde also reminded me on the House floor, that we as Republicans provided freedom for literally hundreds of millions of people with our policies. That wasn’t the function, from a military point of view, of an isolationist policy.

But we didn’t do it by invading Poland or Hungary.

Hunter: No, but on the other hand, we provided a military shield in Central America while we established fragile democracies there.

We didn’t invade El Salvador or Nicaragua, either.

Hunter: Well, there were a number of people with weapons in Nicaragua who were supported by the United States who were engaged in warfare. So, it’s always better for people to fight for their own freedom, than for the United States to have to do that. But there were armed clashes in Nicaragua that were supported by Americans, and we did have security forces in El Salvador.

But the pattern that we followed for 60 years, whether it was the stand up of the government of Japan, and then the stand up of a military apparatus that was sufficient to protect that government, or in the Philippines, or in Central America, was: 1) Stand up a free government, 2) stand up a security apparatus capable of protecting that free government, and 3) the Americans leave.

The fact that we haven’t coveted the resources of those nations and haven’t imposed financial requirements on them—in fact, to the contrary, have given them free access to our markets—has differentiated our country from any other country in the history of the world in terms of their foreign policy.

In a speech he gave to his committee when Condoleezza Rice testified there this year, Henry Hyde addressed exactly this question. He argued it is a false analogy to compare what happened in Japan or Europe after World War II to the policy we’re pursuing now, in that we put massive armies in those places, we made massive investments of money in those places, and we literally did stay there for decades with large armies. They developed democracies and stability over a long period of time with that massive investment on our part.

Hunter: Well, here’s what I would argue. Freedom never comes wrapped in neat packages. In these various countries, you have to custom-make the solution. For example, the solution in El Salvador was, we had a few advisors. We provided a shield. We provided investment, military equipment and training, and they were able to stand up that fragile government, and it sustained. In fact, Salvadorians stand side-by-side with us in the Middle East right now.

We literally gave Japan a constitution and stood up a security force sufficient to protect their free government, and they took a radical turn from the government they previously had. It was not an evolution, it was a total departure.

We wrestled with the Soviets for the soul of Europe with the Marshall plan and with the Berlin Air Lift, and that was essentially a stand-off with the Soviet Union that required a lot of endurance, usually exercised by Republicans and Republican administrations, that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then we had the situation in Korea, where we were almost driven off the peninsula in 1950 after all of our experts had determined that the Chinese would never get into the war, then they came into the war in large numbers. We worked our way back up to the DMZ, we established a line with the Communists and we maintained forces there for 60 years.

So, my point is, you have a broad spectrum of solutions that we brought with varying degrees of success to bring freedom to different parts of the world. Now we have a world that we’re trying to bring freedom to. It’s a world where tyranny doesn’t grow out of the teachings of Karl Marx, it grows out of an extremist, perverted version of the Islamic religion that says that Jews and Christians and even Muslims who don’t walk that particular line should be exterminated. Opening up freedom in this new part of the world has a lot of challenges that are very different from the challenges that we saw in Europe and other parts of the world with respect to the contest against Marxism. So it’s tough.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries down the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, none of these are democracies. Most are monarchies or emirates. Historically, they’ve been friendly to the United States. They’ve strategically cooperated with us. They were literally our allies in the first war against Iraq. Do you think we ought to try to destabilize those countries and make them into democracies?

Hunter: No. No.

Or do you think we ought to work with them the way they are now?

Hunter: It’s in our interest to have countries that have a benign relationship with the United States. So, if you have your options, having a nation that has a modicum of freedom in that neighborhood is a good thing that will serve the interests of the United States for the next 10, 20, 30 years if we can prevail. And, when I say prevail, and I’m talking about Iraq, I mean having a country that has a modicum of freedom, that will not be a state sponsor of terrorism, that will have a benign relationship with our country.

I think that’s achievable. When I’ve been asked for my opinion by members of the administration—and I’ve offered it on several occasions unasked—that’s my opinion. Secondly, when you flow water over a piece of ground, it follows the topography. It doesn’t flow up hill. So you’ve got to overlay this freedom over what exists in that piece of the world, with all of its tribalism and ethnic divisions and religious divisions. That means you’re not going to come out with a system that is similar to the United States. On the other hand, you can come out with a system that does support a modicum of freedom and that would support a good relationship with the United States.

You’re chairman of the Armed Services Committee. You’ve been to Iraq many times. If you look at the casualties we’re taking in Iraq, where troops are actually being killed, the overwhelming percentage of them are Hum-Vees being exploded by IEDs.

Hunter: Roadside bombs.

Is there really any way our military can have a victory which means IEDs stop going off? Is there some sort of military tactic or strategy we can follow that can stop us from taking those kinds of casualties?

Hunter: Throughout the world, you’re going to see remotely detonated bombs being utilized against free people. What we’ve entered now is an era of terrorists with technology.

Let me tell what we’ve done with the Armed Services Committee. This is something we’ve really done, so it’s not theoretical. Under my leadership, our committee has put in billions of dollars more into the Defense budget to protect our forces. My director of the Armed Services Committee is much different from any director we’ve ever had in the past. He’s a former CEO of an aerospace company. When the Army says, “We’re sorry, we can’t get these armored Hum-Vees until next March,” he says, “Why?” They say, “Well, because we’ve got problems delivering the steel.” He says, “Well, let me talk to the steel company.” And he goes to the steel company, and he says, “What’s wrong here?” They say, “Well, they haven’t asked us to speed this program,” or “We’ve got a problem with the union,” and he says, “Well, let me talk to the union.” And he’s done this. I’m not giving you things that we might do, I’m telling you what we’ve actually done. He talks to the union, they say, “Well we’ve got kids over there too, we can accelerate our production schedule.”

We have moved the production of up-armored Hum-Vees to the left—that means got them ahead of time. We passed a provision that I wrote that says this: If you’re taking casualties on the field of battle, the secretary of Defense has the authority with a single signature to waive every acquisition regulation on the books. These are acquisition regs that we put in place which were meant to protect interests. They were meant to protect the interests of minority firms, they were meant to protect the interests of small business, they were meant to protect the interests of competitors that lost bids. But they all amounted to lots and lots of delay in achieving systems for the battlefield. You win a contract to do an up-armored Hum-Vee. The competitor who lost files an appeal for the award. Six months go by before the appeal is heard. In meantime, the guys in the field aren’t getting the Hum-Vee.

We used that to get 10,000 jammers for roadside bombs into the field. We got them manufactured and into the field in 70 days. So we’ve put in place brand new mechanisms to meet this new field of battle against terrorists with technology.

Do you think winning in Iraq is achievable? How would you resolve the sectarian strife? John McCain says put in more troops. Carl Levin is saying we should at least threaten the new government with withdrawal, so they’ll shape up. What is your solution?

Hunter: We’re on the second phase of a three-phase plan that we’ve followed for 60 years with countries all over the world, and that’s simply this: stand up a free government. And I think conservatives and liberals were surprised with the enthusiasm with which the Iraqi people participated in the government. That is, going out and voting, even under threat. They are engaging in the political rough and tumble that’s required to put together a government. They engaged in that enthusiastically. Not always perfectly, but, nonetheless, I think the coalition was pleasantly surprised with the enthusiasm with which the Iraqi people embraced the idea of voting for their leaders, standing up a government, however imperfect.

The second phase is you stand up a military apparatus that’s capable of protecting the free government. With all the talk going on right now, and all the theories, that’s the phase upon which all else depends. What you have to have is a military capable of protecting the government and, in a general way, the order of the society. What we have right now are 114 Iraqi battalions, trained and equipped to some degree. My recommendation to the President is this. You have about 35 of those battalions in and around Baghdad right now. A lot of parts of Iraq are benign, there’s no action taking place. My recommendation to the President is simply this: You build an effective military by putting them in combat operations. That’s the most effective way and quickest way to mature a fighting force.

In this case, we’re standing up the Iraqi military, and we’ve got 114 battalions trained and equipped to some degree. Only 35 of them right now are in and around Baghdad where the majority of the fighting is taking place. Here’s my recommendation: Rotate every single battalion into the fight. That means the battalions that are in benign areas, they get a call from the ministry of Defense that says saddle up, get in your trucks, move to the battle zone, and even if you have a four, five, six, seven week operation, you get combat experience.

Now, what that does is give you unit cohesiveness, it establishes responsiveness in your chain of command—meaning when a colonel gives an order, it ends up getting followed down to the squad level. It gives you combat effectiveness, because your people are working together and actually fighting together, side-by-side. And it also will give us a very important answer to this question that always arises when you stand up the free government and you establish a military arm to protect that government: what is the responsiveness and obedience of that military arm to the civilian government? That means when the ministry of Defense calls up that battalion commander in Southern Iraq, and tells him to saddle up his troops and truck them off to Baghdad in the war zone, is he going to salute and say, “Yes sir,” and do it? If a particular battalion commander is not going to do it, you need to know that, and you need to take one of your battlefield commanders out of a unit that is doing well, and move them into a leadership position. The point is, by rotating these battalions into the fight, you mature them much more quickly than if you’re simply doing military exercises in a benign environment. It also will give confidence to the Iraqi people in their army. It will also develop this responsiveness between the civilian government and your military leadership. You’ve got to have that. So that’s my recommendation, that’s my letter that I sent to the President.

So I don’t agree with sending more American forces in. Send the Iraqi battalions in. That’s what we trained them for.

Don’t they need to have at least American advisors?

Hunter: Yes, and we have American advisory teams that we use with great effectiveness with these Iraqi battalions, and that gives you leverage.

Who would they fight? Would they fight the militias? What would you do with them?

Hunter: First, I’m not a tactical commander. What they do is they try to bring stability to these areas. If you pull in another 30 battalions and put them in stability operations in Baghdad, most of them are going to be patrolling. Now, if you have a militia that attacks the government, you protect the government. If you have militias that are attacking large bodies of civilians, then you protect them. Now, whether you do that with solely defensive operations where you cordon areas, or whether you do that with sweep operations or with offensive operations, is a function of your tactical analysis. So, if you’re asking me down to the squad level, who’s going fire the first gun, that’s something that the Iraqi forces will have to decide. There’s an array of military operations that you take.

The impression is that if you flood the zone here with all these Iraqi troops that you could actually stabilize these areas and control the militias?

Hunter: Sure. Certainly. Yes. Here’s what I think you’ve got in Iraq. You’re always going to have bombs going off in that neighborhood. So, the idea that you’re going to have an Iraq where there’s never a bomb going off is no more realistic than saying you’re going have an Israel where money and resources can stop bombs from going off. If they could, they’d be stopped, right? In that neighborhood, you’ll always have that. And you’re always going to have the friction that is born of the ages between the Sunni and the Shi’ite factions.

But what I think we can have is this: An Iraq that has a government that is a friend of the United States, not an enemy, that has a modicum of democracy and freedom, which is new to that part of the world, and that will not be a state sponsor of terrorism for the next 10, 20, 30 years, which accrues to the benefit of Americans.

Having said that, nobody’s guaranteed freedom in perpetuity, not even us. So, we will have given the Iraqis a running start at democracy. And the last piece of what we’re doing right now is simply standing up this military force.

If we had a military force in Iraq that right now was capable of stabilizing that government, our mission would be over, because self-determination is self-determination. One thing we don’t have to have that nations in the past have had to have is some kind of continuing control over Iraq. Freedom is freedom.

Do you favor universal conscription?

Hunter: No. We’ve got enough people. We’ve had more than 100% re-enlistment in our major fighting units, in the combat units. The one place where we’ve had fewer retentions than we were expecting was in the Naval Reserve. Those aren’t the guys that fighting in downtown Baghdad. But the 1st ID, 3rd ID, 1st Marine Division, we’ve gone over 100% re-enlistment.